Music Reviews | 2014

Calum Stewart and Heikki Bourgault | Hunter’s Moon | Album Review | CH/2 | 06.01.14

Once again Scotland’s Calum Stewart and Brittany’s Heikki Bourgault return on Uilleann Pipes/Wooden Flute and guitar respectively to engage in some highly invigorating instrumental music.  Initially joining forces on the duo’s self-titled debut, the team shows no sign of waning with this follow up album.  The instant appeal of the selections on Hunter’s Moon is the interplay between the two musicians and the combined endeavour to draw upon both Scots and Breton traditions.  With one or two overdubs, it’s pretty much just two musical voices flittering around one another seeking the best available spaces to fill, yet never over-embellishing the tune.  Nowhere does it sound better than with a whispered flute and a highly rhythmic guitar and that happens frequently here.  Hunter’s Moon will leave you wanting more.

Albino | The Great Unwashed | Album Review | Guts for Garters | 07.01.14

This latest release by the prolific London-based ‘punkabilly’ quartet Albino once again delivers a punch with a handful of up-tempo foot-tappers that are more than suitable for the urban Elephant and Castle pub scene the band inhabits.  Describing themselves as ‘Alabama Bingo Nomads’, the band comprises half-Australian singer/guitarist Ben Tucker, Liverpudlian drummer Don Gibson, Hampshire-born bouzouki player Matt Parker and Somalian bassist Fuzzy Salole, each more than capable of stirring up a party atmosphere.  Once again Matt Parker provides some fine trombone accompanament on “Judgement Day”, which gives the band their distinctive sound.  The fact that these guys do this as an antidote to the day job probably makes it all the more valid and all the more fun. 

Bap Kennedy | Let’s Start Again | Album Review | Proper | 08.01.14

The former lead singer with Belfast’s Energy Orchard releases his sixth solo album Let’s Start Again, featuring eleven new self-penned songs, each imbued with a strong Americana feel.  With an impressive back catalogue of album releases, one or two produced by notable musicians such as Mark Knopfler and Steve Earle, it’s hardly surprising that any subsequent albums would see the singer/songwriter strive for excellence and for this album, Kennedy returns to Mudd Wallace, producer of some of Kennedy’s earlier band work.  With clear and unfussy production, the songs are revealed as both slick and accomplished and at the same time highly accessible, with engaging melodies and mature lyrics.  Surrounding himself with musicians that have worked as part of Kennedy’s live band, including his wife Brenda Kennedy on bass, Gordy McAllister on guitar and Rabb Bennett on drums, the songs are treated to some fine accompaniment, each with an Americana flavour, particularly “King of Mexico”, with its south of the border flavour and the wireless-pally “Radio Waves”.  In places, the band really swings as on “Heart Trouble” and “Fool’s Paradise”, both of which explore the diverse genres as Western Swing and Calypso respectively.  Any problems deciding where to file this album, just stick it alongside your Cooders, Haitts and Tom Russells.

Susan Cattaneo | Haunted Heart | Album Review | Jersey Girl | 09.01.14

Jersey’s Susan Cattaneo’s fourth album and follow up to last years’ Little Big Sky demonstrates a move towards more personal content, taking first-hand ownership rather than writing with others in mind.  Coming from an academic background, a professor in songwriting at Berklee College of Music, you would expect nothing short of class, and that’s pretty much what we get on Haunted Heart.  Produced by Lorne Entress, the handsomely packaged release also takes care to ensure we get our money’s worth, with fourteen songs, each accompanied with printed lyrics in an equally handsome booklet.  It’s all pretty much about storytelling, sophistication and style, with Cattaneo choosing a Country pallet to lay her varied colours, although it has to be said, Haunted Heart takes on a more contemporary feel in places.  From the powerful “Abide” to the radio-friendly “Lorelei”, the emotional charges take command of the album’s content, leaving us with melodies to remember and lyrics to think about.  This should be the album that sees Susan Cattaneo mentioned in the same breath as Lucinda Williams, Gretchen Peters and Kim Richey.

Twelfth Day | Speak From the Start | EP Review | Orange Feather Records | 10.01.14

Catriona Price and Esther Swift, otherwise known as Twefth Day, take five contemporary songs and treat them to a facelift, using their instrumental prowess on both fiddle and harp respectively as well as their almost ethereal vocals, which interweave through the selections achieving highly original results.  The songs are almost totally disguised through arrangement and it takes one or two plays before Blondie’s “Sunday Girl” registers.  The same can be said for “You’re the One for Me Fatty”, the song that kick started the idea for this EP, the Morrissey song chosen after BBC Manchester asked the duo to record the song as part of their 40th birthday celebrations.  Other selections include a cover of the first single by Glasgow’s Twin Atlantic “Edit Me”, and a sublime and certainly less brash version of Kanye West’s “Street Lights”, which seems to hover in the ether.  The EP also serves as a timely stopgap between the duos debut album Northern Quarter and their forthcoming follow up due for release in the Spring.

O’Hooley and Tidow | The Hum | Album Review | No Masters | 11.01.14

This highly engaging third album release by West Yorkshire-based songwriting duo Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow once again takes us on a sophisticated journey, with the duo’s vivid outlook on matters of the heart, matters of the conscience and matters of life in general.  Upon first hearing The Hum, there’s a distinctly intimate feel, giving the impression that the duo are right there in the room with you; it’s pretty close-up and personal from the start as we are introduced to the ‘hum’, which is really the audible space between us all.  One look at the expression on the faces of the couple on the front cover reveals a clear indication of what the hum is; it’s what we all hear if we attentively listen.  Once again the focus is divided between three main elements; the very singular song writing style, Belinda and Heidi’s inimitable and precise harmonies and the duo’s flair for adventurous arrangements.  Highly dramatic in places, especially on the gorgeous arrangement of Nic Jones’ “Ruins by the Shore”, a song Belinda has grown to absorb during her unexpected partnership with the celebrated folk singer in recent years.  The building tension of Ewan MacColl’s “Just a Note”, which appears to continue into the ambiguously caustic drinking song “Summat’s Brewing”, demonstrates the duo’s relish for drama.  By contrast, the delicacy of “Two Mothers” indicates once again just how sensitive these two performers are prepared to go, with possibly the album’s most outstanding performance.  You get the feeling that O’Hooley and Tidow have no room in their repertoire for throw-away songs, each one calculated for artistic expression with each phrase intending to hit a specific target, which it quite often does.  Whether delivered with the pure tonal quality of Belinda’s voice or via Heidi’s deep and breathy timbre or more impressively by their combined harmonies, the songs are brought to life with no shortfall in passion, dedication and commitment.  With a busy touring schedule that has seen Belinda and Heidi develop as first rate live performers as well as accomplished musicians in the studio, their two distinctive voices have grown so close as to appear to be quite inseparable.

Emily Smith | Echoes | Album Review | White Fall Records | 12.01.14

Whenever we hear Emily Smith, whether that be at a concert, a festival or on record, quality is almost guaranteed every time. Emily now has a decade under her belt as one of Scotland’s most recognisable voices with a handful of impressive releases behind her.  On this Emily’s fifth solo release, the singer surrounds herself with an impressive gathering of highly regarded musicians from both sides of the Atlantic.  With a core band comprising husband Jamie McClennan, multi-instrumentalist Matheu Watson, Ross Hamilton on bass and Signy Jakobsdottir on percussion, Emily is joined by Jerry Douglas, Aoife O’Donovan, Kris Drever, Natalie Haas, Rory Butler and Tim Edey, each of whom help to lift these mainly traditional songs to an entirely different level.   Hidden amongst the traditional songs such as “King Orfeo”, “Twa Sisters” and “My Darling Boy” are a couple of notable covers including Darrell Scott’s exquisite “The Open Door” and Bill Caddick’s beautifully timeless “John O’Dreams”.  With ten years of performing behind her, we can only hazard a guess at what’s in store for the next ten years.  Having watched her growth and development from the comfort of an armchair at home or from the side of stages at countless concerts and festivals during those few years, this reviewer has no problem imagining nothing short of high quality musical engagement in the years to come.  Why not then start with Echoes.

Rodina | Home | Album Review | Self Release | 13.01.14

In the midst of this dark, bleak and dismal winter, Aoife Hearty and Joe Tatton bring a glimmer of sunlight into our hearts with Rodina’s third album release Home.  The UK-based jazz/acoustica collective, originally formed in 2009, suggests at the very least that your hips should be moving, but urges you to go one step further and get out of your seat to feel the groove with over a dozen well-crafted mood-enhancing delights.  Quite a lot has happened since the band first appeared in the Northern Sky pages with their debut album Over The Sun (2009), including the remix album Rodina And The Wolf in collaboration with DJ Christian Wolstenholme and at least one US tour.  Their new release Home once again features Irish singer Aoife’s distinctively laid back vocals and Tatton’s empathetic production, together with an ensemble of choice musicians, who collectively provide a tight sound throughout.

Henry Priestman | The Last Mad Surge of Youth | Album Review | Proper | 14.01.14

One of the big surprises of 2009 was the return of Henry Priestman, formerly of Yachts and The Christians, then embarking on a solo career and writing for all intents and purposes from the perspective of middle-age, with an album’s worth of fascinating and poignant songs.  The songs may or may not have been directed at a certain demographic (Johnnie Walker famously quipped ‘music for grumpy old men’), but the songs were actually enjoyed by all.  Four years down the line and the follow-up arrives with the curious title The Last Surge Of Youth, revealing a further dozen well-crafted and mature songs.  What started as a potentially optimistic project in 2010, was temporarily put on hold after one or two personal tragedies, which slightly altered the direction of the song writing, resulting in a much more reflective album than first intended.  Self-produced by Priestman, the album features contributions from Katriona Gilmore, Graham Gouldman, Paul Simpson and Probyn Gregory, with further help from singer/songwriter Lotte Mullan who co-wrote the album’s opener “At the End of the Day”, a heart-warming song in memory of Priestman’s late mother, with a delicious brass arrangement.  Henry Priestman’s trump card is in his handling of the protest genre, by gently calling to arms the conscientious with such songs as the Beatles inspired Rant and Rave, confessing a desire to speak up ‘before I get too old’, while “Same Circus Different Clowns” really says it all in the title alone.  There’s every possibility that if some ageing Country star manages to record “I Cried Today” as his swansong, it could elevate him to the same heights that Johnny Cash achieved with “Hurt”.  We just don’t want it to be Henry’s swansong.  More please.  

Oysterband | Diamonds on the Water | Album Review | Navigator | 15.01.14

After their highly successful and award-winning stint with June Tabor, Oysterband return with their first album of original songs in seven years, their first album since the band bid farewell to Ray ‘Chopper’ Cooper, who left to pursue a solo career.  From the outset, Diamond On The Water has an instantly accessible feel with producer Al Scott stepping in on bass and mandolin, joining the rest of the band to deliver what is essentially a clutter-free album.  To bring back the sun on the opening song “A Clown’s Heart” seems to sum up the mood of the album, with its almost joyous chorus, despite the song referencing our inevitable destination.  It must have been a toss up when the band came to choose the opening number, as the radio friendly “A River Runs” comes with all the anthemic wallop we’ve come to expect from the band.  Oysterband’s brooding treatment of the traditional “Once I Had a Sweetheart” is notable not only as a refreshing change to the almost exclusively female ownership of the song over the last few decades but also for Alan Prosser’s dark arrangement, which adds further depth to this widely recorded song.  While “Steal Away” takes a gentle look at a child’s fear and offers some reassurance, even in these times, “The Wilderness” takes us on a true outdoor adventure in the Rockies, addressing grown-up fears, reminding us of the fact that when faced with the forces of nature, human beings are no longer the masters.  Although Ragged Kingdom presented a tough act to follow, Oysterband have delivered an album they should be proud of and fans and newcomers should thoroughly enjoy equally. 

Shinyribs | Gulf Coast Museum | Album Review | Nine Mile Records | 16.01.14

Known primarily as the frontman of Austin-based band The Gourds, Kevin Russell releases his second solo album and follow up to 2010’s Well After A While, going once again under the guise of ‘Shinyribs’.  The nine punchy country-based numbers, which the singer/songwriter refers to as ‘tall tales from Texas’, are not only suitable for any late night juke joints in the Lone Star State but for that matter, anywhere.  Having honed his craft in the bars of Louisiana, Russell adopted the Shinyribs identity eight years ago and continues to bring his own distinctive swampy groove to the fore with a little help from his core band consisting of Keith Langford on drums, Winfield Check on keyboards and Jeff Brown on bass.  The surprise song on the album is a pretty soulful take on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes hit “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, accompanying himself on ukulele and with a fine falsetto, which shouldn’t really be considered a novelty, but instead a valid and soulful homage.

Lincoln Durham | Exodus of the Deemed Unrighteous | Album Review | Droog Records | 17.01.14

This gritty blues-based second album from Texan ‘roots-rock revivalist’ Lincoln Durham, whose edgy primal vocal and blistering splintered guitars, often sounding more like heavy plant tools than musical instruments, drives home ten songs like a pneumatic drill.  There’s an instant sense that this musician means business and with titles such as “Sinner”, “Stupid Man” and “Beautifully Sewn, Violently Torn”, there’s an uncompromising assault on the senses from the start.  It’s not all fire and angst, with the inclusion of the relatively tender “Keep on Allie”, which offers a momentary respite from the frenzied blood and guts.  Produced by George Reiff, Exodus Of The Deemed Unrighteous maintains a home-made feel, which sees Lincoln Durham taking care of all the instruments, including various guitars, some cobbled together, together with fiddle, banjo, harmonica and even plucked piano strings (on “Mama”), with Rick Richards on drums and the occasional pat on the leg. A bit of a shock to the system, as is the awful cover.

Daniel Nestlerode | More Than a Little Guitar | EP Review | Camp 40 Recordings | 24.01.14

Produced by fellow Cambridge-based US ex-pat Brooks Williams, this Pennsylvania-born singer/songwriter and mandolin player follows up his recent Nibbles EP with his first full-length album.  On More Than A Little Guitar Daniel Nestlerode explores the mandolin’s potential not only on a handful of well-known traditional songs and fiddle tunes such as “Going to the West”, “Red River Valley” and “Whiskey Before Breakfast”, but also on his own compositions such as the brooding “Virginia Claire”, the atmospheric “A Winter’s Night” and stand out song “Old Calapina”, which first appeared on the earlier EP.  The final song on the album “All the Things You Are”, a love song to his French wife Claudine, reveals the reason why this musician finds himself in the middle of England.  Recorded in his adopted home of Cambridge, the album is pretty much a solo project with a little help from producer Brooks Williams on slide guitar and vocals and engineer Chris Pepper on percussion.

Tracey Browne and Raevennan Husbandes | Coming Home | Single Review | Self Release | 25.01.14

As a taster for the eagerly anticipated debut album featuring the collaboration between Manchester’s Tracey Browne and Suffolk-based singer/songwriter Raevennan Husbandes, “Coming Home” is the duo’s debut single release.  Already established as performers in their own right, both as solo singer/songwriters, Tracey also working as a member of Thea Gilmore’s live band while Raevennan has worked on such projects as the inspirational Harbour Of Songs with The Unthanks’ Adrian McNally, the two have now pooled their musical resources to create a cool and relaxed sound sprinkled with a touch of magic.  If the album’s as good as this single, we’re onto a winner.  If you have ever been away from home for any length of time and you are eager to return, there’s an empathetic feeling we all share once we see the distant lights of our city or town shimmering in the twilight and this feeling is eloquently captured on “Coming Home”, where even Manchester ‘looks so pretty in the night time’.  Already individually affirmed on this reviewer’s radar, it only stands to reason that the combination of Tracey Browne and Raevennan Husbandes would double the excitement.  Watch out for the forthcoming album.

Gavin Marwick | The Long Road and the Far Horizons | Album Review | Journeyman | 26.01.14

This adventurous double CD set from Edinburgh fiddle player and composer Gavin Marwick takes us on a musical journey across continents, through the playing of a variety of fiddle styles from jigs, reels and strathspeys to mazurkas, horas and polskas, making the world a much smaller place in the process.  Seemingly having little problem coming up with original tunes, Marwick weaves a musical tapestry with one instrumental piece after the other, each demonstrating a confident approach to arrangement and instrumentation.  Divided into two parts, The Long Road, followed by The Far Horizons, the two disc set not only takes as its inspiration the diverse range of dance tune styles but the places these styles originated such as Uzbekistan, Brittany, Norway, Portugal and the Pyrenees as well as much closer to home; once you’ve listened to the entire set you kind of feel you’ve been places.  While being involved with such bands as Bellevue Rendezvous, Ceilidh Minogue, Unusual Suspects and Iron Horse, Marwick has been continually composing music and writing tunes and has steadily built up a prolific repertoire, some of which will also be released in the form of a tune book, but initially appears here as the first of what will be known as ‘the Journeyman recordings’.  Whether you want to tackle some of the pieces yourself or just sit back and enjoy the record, it’s a journey you will no doubt enjoy.

Eddi Reader | Vagabond | Album Review | Reveal Records | 27.01.14

Eddi Reader just happens to have one of the most versatile voices around; the sort of voice that manages to navigate the great songbooks of time almost chameleon-like, yet with everything she does, manages to maintain her own distinctive sonic personality.  On this new album, that voice is equally at home on 1930s crooners such as “I’ll Never Be the Same”, ancient traditional Gaelic songs such as Buain Rainich to the contemporary songs of the late Michael Marra and regular musical partner Boo Hewerdine, “Macushla (My Darling)” and “It’s a Beautiful Night respectively”.  Produced by Eddi herself with the help of Mark Freegard, Vagabond has a distinctly French continental feel, largely due to Alan Kelly’s atmospheric accordion accompaniment on half of the album.  That French feel is no more apparent though than on Eddi’s own autobiographical “Midnight in Paris 1979”, which features this time Phil Cunningham on accordion together with some convincing soprano sax courtesy of Gustaf Ljunggern.  Lavishly produced with some sweeping string arrangements on the curiously titled “Back the Dogs (Dancing Down Rock)” and an impressive gathering of empathetic musicians including Ian Carr, John McCusker, Karen Matheson and John Douglas, this latest release will once again appeal to both the discerning music fan and the easy listening afternoon radio fan alike.

Steel Threads | For Those Who Are Left | Album Review | Self Release | 27.01.14

Oldham-based acoustic folk-rockers Steel Threads return with their second full-length album and follow up to 2012’s Timing Is Everything, once again featuring the sparring partnership of Neil Wardleworth on guitar, bass drum and vocals and Laura Wilcockson on violin and vocals, with further contributions from Stuart Eastham on double bass, who also produces the album.  Pledge-funded by their growing legion of fans, the new album once again attempts and succeeds in capturing the bands live sound, which is fundamentally acoustic based, with a distinctive rock sensibility.  With a new batch of original songs, mostly from the pen of Wardleworth, the album features some instantly accessible songs such as the gentle “Beautiful Friend”, the bluesy “The Boy Who Lost His Way” and the dreamy “Follow You”, featuring the lead vocal of Laura Wilcockson, not to mention the Doctor Who styled Sci-Fi shenanigans midway through the epic title song.

Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons | Hey Kid | Album Review | Vital Music | 01.02.14

After a series of introductory EPs and singles, all of which have served to break into our consciousness this 27-year-old Ohio-raised singer/songwriter, Hey Kid comes along and quite predictably packs a bit of a punch, especially with such songs as “Hurricane”, “Bad Reputation” and “Milk in the Fridge”.  Such full-on rock and roll anthems seem contrary to Angela Perley’s quiet and reserved off-stage persona and quite a number of miles away from the country girl sawing her way through the “Gonna Make That Man Mine” promo video.  Formed in 2009, the Howlin’ Moons have gone on to craft a tight and confident approach to their own Americana formula, which is demonstrated in spades on this the band’s first full-length album, none of the tracks having been regurgitated from previous releases, but all refreshingly new.  Produced by Jerry DePizzo and Mike Landolt, Hey Kid comes up with all the regular features; tight rhythm section, courtesy of Billy Zehnal on bass and Jeff Martin on drums, nice fluid guitar playing from Chris Connor, and of course topped off by Angela Perley’s familiar vocal delivery and yes, the occasional bit of musical sawing.

Krista Detor | Flat Earth Diary | Album Review | Tightrope Records | 02.02.14

In the UK, the name Krista Detor could very well be immediately linked to Shrewsbury Festival’s Darwin Song Project, Detor being the only American musician involved in the noted birthday bash in celebration of Charles Darwin’s 200th.  If that project was successful in bringing Krista Detor to our attention, then it’s the further discovery of her four solo albums that have helped maintain our interest in her mature song writing.  Detor’s fifth album Flat Earth Diary, her first in four years, is probably her most personal collection of songs to date.  The album’s title and unifying thread that pulls the dozen songs together occurred to Krista while out in a boat on the North Channel of Lake Huron.  Wine-induced thoughts and childhood memories, together with the notion of Terry Pratchett’s Disc World, while floating out on the second largest of North America’s Great Lakes, might be responsible for these songs.  With no land in sight, a flow of creativity was triggered, which was subsequently rendered in the studio with no small help from an impressive gathering of musicians, including no less than six bass players – bass players are famously like London buses; you wait for one for ages and then six come along at the same time.)  Produced by David Weber, who also contributes guitar and vocals, Flat Earth Diary provides us with some fine performances, from the swirling piano accompaniment of the opening song “Ferryman’s Dream”, the almost rockabilly feel of Belle of the Ball to the beautiful piano-led “Marietta” and equally dreamy bonus track “Blowing Kisses”.

AL Lloyd | Turtle Dove | Album Review | Fellside | 04.02.14

Fellside’s fifth collection of A.L. (Bert) Lloyd recordings concerns the more erotic side of love, with seventeen songs, mostly of which will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in folk song over the last few decades, although probably not in such a stripped down form. Although many of these songs have been worked and re-worked by singers and musicians over the years, songs like “The Trees They Do Grow High”, “The Seven Gypsies” and “Reynardine”, the uncluttered interpretations here focuses pretty much on the songs themselves and keeps musical embellishment to a minimum.  The stories are therefore presented in such a way as to allow the listener to come away with a clear understanding of the content and power of each song.  With informative sleeve notes by Fellside’s Paul Adams together with original song notes by Bert Lloyd, Turtle Dove (subtitled England and Her Traditional Songs Vol. 2) is presented as another invaluable collection of historic recordings.  As with the four previous releases, England and Her Traditional Songs, Ten Thousand Miles Away, An Evening with A.L. Lloyd and Bramble Briars and Beams of the Sun, this collection makes a fine addition to a growing collection of material that serves both folk scholars and casual listeners alike.  Bert Lloyd is accompanied by Alf Edwards on English concertina, Ralph Rinzler on mandolin and Steve Benbow on guitar.

Heath Common | The Dream of Miss Dee | Album Review | Hi4Head Records | 05.02.14

With as many references as influences, Heath Common presents a mixed media travelog through the annals and avenues of the Beat Generation and the Counter Culture, retracing the footsteps of Kerouac and Ginsberg, Jagger and Lennon, Michael X and International Times, the Dead and the Plane, not to mention Robert Johnson and Honeyboy Edwards and just about as many counter culture references you wish to re-imagine.  Part John Cooper Clarke, part Ian McMillan, part Syd Barrett, the poet/musician finds it difficult to separate the disciplines of poetry and music and they both work alongside each other, intermingling throughout the album, complimenting each other quite generously.  Like Ray Davies, Heath Common talks about everyday places but makes them sound so enchanting, albeit with a gritty edge, whether paying homage to the city of Manchester (“Manchester Summertime”) or the city of New York (“Angel of New York”), the same even applies to Bradford Park Avenue.  Well, you had to be there.  With short interludes between the songs, dream bites if you will, the album comes across all concept-like, further alluded to by songs with whacky titles such as “Zorba the Beat”, “When the Dog Bites the Monkey” and “Why Truck Drivers Rise Earlier Than Students of Zen”, based on beat poet Gary Snider’s poem.  “The Death of Honeyboy Edwards” is a wry look at a blues legend’s attitude towards blues pretenders in no uncertain terms.  Recorded in both Sheffield and Hull and co-produced by Heath Common and Chris Halliwell, The Dream Of Miss Dee is a highly entertaining overview of a period of time recognised by anyone in their mid to late 50s, who remembers the 1960s, whether they were there or not. 

Urban Folk Quartet | UFQ Live II | Album Review | Self Release | 05.02.14

Anyone who has caught an Urban Folk Quartet performance at either a club near you or at one of our many festivals over the last five years will be only too aware that the UFQ put on much more than just a ‘show’; these four musicians when together on the same stage make for quite an explosive formula.  By the band’s own admission the UFQ are first and foremost a live band and with two of their four releases to date being live albums, it is plainly their own chosen comfort zone.  Recorded live over two nights in London and Birmingham during May 2013 before audiences made up of fans fresh from attending a sugar tasting convention (washed down with copious amounts of Red Bull), the recordings feature enthusiastic revelling throughout, almost awarding the crowd equal importance as the music they were fervently grooving to.  The UFQ, which features Joe Broughton, Paloma Trigás, Tom Chapman and Dan Walsh, feed off this sort of engaging audience and the energy is successfully captured on these recordings.  The music itself is made up for the most part of material from the band’s two studio albums, including “Jaleo Bus/Up in the Air”, “Dink’s Song/One River Reel” and “Zephyr/Storm Chasers” from their most recent album Off Beaten Tracks and “The Stoney Steps Set” and “Upstart” from the band’s self-titled debut.  There’s also a couple of new pieces captured on the album, “The Escape” and “Barnstorming” together with one of the band’s regular showstoppers, Tom Chapman’s Santana-esque triangle solo.  Produced by Joe Broughton, Ufq Live II urges you to close your eyes, turn up the volume and sit back for this virtual concert, although some of this is not recommended while driving.  Enjoy.

Jarrod Dickenson | Songs From Willow St | EP Review | Self Release | 09.02.14

At the moment, EPs are working very well to bring new(ish) artists noticed, each one offering a snapshot of what’s on offer.  Four songs seem to keep our attention in this age of diminishing attention spans and Jarrod Dickenson has strategically placed four exceptionally good songs on this new EP, which defeats the object really, as no sooner do you get to the end of the 14 minutes, you take it back to beginning and listen over again.  The Texas-born, now relocated to Brooklyn singer/songwriter, opens Songs From Willow St with “Your Heart Belongs To Me”, a delicious love song that utilises a simple guitar-led accompaniment and double-tracked vocal, which eases us into what is revealed to be a good quarter of an hour well spent.  The highlight though comes midway through, when Dickenson leans more towards his Texas roots with “Misty Eyes and a Troubled Mind”, which effectively puts him shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steve Earle in terms of the Texas storytelling tradition.

Blazin’ Fiddles | Six | Album Review | Proper | 12.02.14

Four beautifully arranged and beautifully photographed violins grace the cover of the latest Blazin’ Fiddles album Six, which could either be a reference to the fact that this is the band’s sixth release to date or perhaps to the fact that there are six members in the band.  Taking the traditional music of the Highlands and islands as their starting point, Blazin’ Fiddles play each set of tunes with authority, vigour and not least, a palpable sense of fun.  Scottish fiddle music is one of the few genres of music where you feel there’s just as much fun being had whether there’s an audience around or not.  It’s there in the interaction between the instruments but also in the eyes of the players and the frequent smiles of acknowledgement during those special moments when it all works out so perfectly well.  The four fiddle players who form the front line of this outfit, Allan Henderson, Bruce MacGregor, Iain MacFarlane and Jenna Reid, share an understanding of the music with the ability to shape it into an instantly accessible and cohesive whole, drawing from the traditions of the Highlands and surrounding islands, Ireland, Cape Breton, Scandinavia, Bulgaria and Quebec.  Anna Massie and Angus Lyon complete the line up on guitar and piano respectively, with Anna throwing in a bit of additional fiddle to boot.  Highly inventive in places, the contemporary arrangements maintain a traditional feel, largely due to the prominent role of the piano, especially on the opening set “The Lads Like Beer” and “Colgrave Soond”, which bring to mind Andy Stewart’s Scotch Corner-era country dances.   Sadly, since recording this album, Allan Henderson and Iain MacFarlane have left the band and have been replaced by two other outstanding musicians, Rua Macmillan and Kristan Harvey, who join the ranks of what is steadily being recognised as one of the most important and hottest contemporary folk music bands in Scotland today.

Karen Grace | Deep Down Things | EP Review | Self Release | 14.02.14

This debut EP by singer/songwriter Karen Grace features five self-penned songs, each treated to an utterly enchanting arrangement and each delivered with equal measures of confidence and vulnerability.  Produced by Iain Archer (Jake Bugg), the five songs showcase a very mature and intelligent approach to song writing, a multi-octave vocal range, which is used with confidence and flair and most importantly a healthy feel for adventurous arrangements, especially on such songs as “Tired Heart” and “This Fear”, the latter featuring Elbow violinist Jote Osahn.  Avoiding such irritating clichés as ‘if you like so and so, you’ll like this’, I hesitate to mention Laura Marling and Moulettes, but if you were to pop them both into a blender and mix them together with some additional seasoning, then a picture should emerge of a ball park.  So, with as many mixed metaphors a review can reasonably put up with, I would encourage you to run to Karen Grace’s concessions stand and buy this utterly gorgeous EP with some urgency. 

Matt Woosey | Hook, Line and Sinker | EP Review | Self Release | 16.02.14

Worcester-born and raised blues singer, songwriter and guitarist Matt Woosey returns after the success of his On The Waggon album, with a new EP featuring four new tracks, with the further addition of a radio edit version of the title song repeated at the end. Rooted very much at the heart of the Blues, the songs are approached in a confident manner and come over as tight and assured, which is hardly surprising as Woosey manages to cram in over 250 gigs a year, with tours so far in such distant corners as South Africa, Europe and Australia.  This experience brings an element of immediacy to the recordings, each of the songs performed on acoustic guitar, occasionally with bottleneck and always with a strong and assured vocal delivery.  Produced by Tony Hobden, Hook, Line And Sinker also features the rhythm section of Mike Hoddinott on drums and Richie Blake on bass.

Sunjay | One Night Only | Album Review | New Mountain Music | 16.02.14

Referred to by MC Bryn Phillips simply as ‘Sunjay’ in his introduction to this live recording, we can assume this young singer/guitarist has dropped his surname in order to join the ranks of many artists who go under the one catchy stage name.  I’m reluctant to refer to Sunjay Brayne as a ‘throwback’ to a generation of performers that dominated the folk clubs of the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as Ralph McTell, Wizz Jones, Steve Tilston and the lesser known but equally influential to the young guitarist Derek Brimstone, each equipped with a guitar and finger picking style borrowed from earlier blues performers, but a throwback he is and I think he’s happy to be regarded amongst such company.  The repertoire back then was shared, swapped or stolen, such as the traditional “Sittin’ on Top of the World”, “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer” and “Scarlett Town”, with original material emerging so thick and fast one had to stop to think which song was a Jackson C Frank, a Bert Jansch or a Davy Graham.  Some had no compunction to go right ahead and claim it as their own, slapping a copyright on the song once back in the States.  I mention no names of course.  Sunjay dutifully and fairly states where his influences lie and where the songs come from, crediting such writers as Chris Smither, Roger Brooks and Blind Willie McTell for their songs, not to mention Bob Segar and Mark Knopfler, on the sleeve notes of this live album.  The record appears to have been recorded in just one night at the Woodman Folk Club, therefore the rough edges can be completely understood and accepted; a perfect record of events would be highly suspicious and in all fairness highly unlikely.  As a live record, Sunjay has been caught in full flow, keeping alive the sort of material that once flourished in the golden days of the folk troubadour.

Simon Mayor | The Art of the Mandolin | Album Review | Acoustic Records | 18.02.14

For anyone who is still in any doubt as to the mandolin family’s versatile nature, Simon Mayor explores the diverse range of the instrument(s), with fifteen pieces of music covering gypsy jazz, ragtime, classical and traditional folk music, to name but a few.  Multi-tracking various members of the instrument’s family, including mandocello and mandola, together with the mandobass, courtesy of long-time musical partner Hilary James, who also plays guitar and double bass, the set is presented as a live album, though I doubt much of this was recorded live, just the introduction and closing thank-you’s.  The dexterous mastery of the mandolin is demonstrated here, from the intricate arrangements of “Fantasia on a Yorkshire Anthem” (On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at – if you will), to the sore fingers nimbleness of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz”, familiar to many as the theme tune to the long running radio panel game Just a Minute, by way of the gentle beauty of Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” and the good time silent movie feel of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”.  Covering a 400 year span, Mayor has chosen to tackle some familiar pieces of music that are just as enjoyable today as they were at any time in the past, expertly performed on instruments that really ought to be recognised alongside their wood and string peers.  With just the one vocal piece, Joseph Canteloube’s lullaby “Brezairola”, beautifully sung by Hilary James, the set is as good a starting place for newcomers to the instrument and old hands alike.

Abi Moore | Amoeba and Stone | Album Review | Honest Records | 23.02.14

I suppose there are many and varied ways of being introduced to a new artist on the scene but none as immediately satisfying as discovering that the girl sitting right next to you in the pub, patiently awaiting her turn to sing, just happens to be pretty damn good and in possession of something rather special.  A few years have passed since that evening at the Old School Inn in Epworth, when Abi Moore picked up her guitar and started to sing one of her own songs before a quiet and appreciative audience, yet for some reason that moment has stayed with me.  Since then Abi has gone on to release a couple of fine self-produced albums, made some impressive promo videos and has marketed herself in a professional manner, while at the same time demonstrating a much more focused approach to her musical career than I had first assumed.   So let’s fast forward a good half a decade to the present, to a time when the fiercely independent singer/songwriter breaks all her own rules and takes on a collaborator in the shape of like-minded musician David Booth, not only in the role of co-producer but also sharing writing credits on a couple of the songs, including the radio friendly “All Outta Sympathy”.  For an artist who by her own admission doesn’t quite fit into the category of folk, nor pop, nor rock, Abi Moore does in fact manage to fit into all three quite comfortably, as well as one or two other genres to boot, exemplified both in the final verse of “Return to Oz”, with its nod to Billie Holiday and in the country-inflected “Nickajack Cave” for instance, which is one of the album’s highlights; but there again, Abi and singing do go together like bread and butter.  Joined by one or two familiar names on the acoustic roots scene including Tristan Tsume on guitars, Nick Zala on pedal steel and Andy Trill on guitar and bass, Abi is also joined by Paul Liddell, duetting on the atmospheric and utterly convincing “Wishful Thinking”.  Maybe Amoeba And Stone will prove to be the album that takes her beyond the steadily growing and loyal following of her native Lincolnshire. 

The Jigantics | Daisy Roots | Album Review | Rawtone | 26.02.14

Well it has to be said The Jigantics don’t mind mixing it up a bit, so much so that it’s almost impossible to identify precisely where their comfort zone lies.  Perhaps they don’t have one and anything really does go?  They certainly have a mixture of outlaw country, a bit of Cajun thrown in here and there, some wistful balladry at their beckon call and they seem to be musical magpies, liberally borrowing from here, there and everywhere and treat non-originals and self-penned songs with an equal amount of passion.  I wasn’t sure at first about the opener, Loudon Wainwright III’s “Swimming Song”; perhaps I’ve been spoilt with the McGarrigle’s version or for that matter a great version by its author in collaboration with Earl Scruggs on some obscure LP buried in the collection, but after a couple of runs through, it’s steadily growing on me.  What didn’t take long to sink in was Marion Fleetwood’s beautiful rendition of Jane Silbury’s “The Valley”, which comes as a real surprise three tracks in.  Immediately followed by a lead vocal by drummer Martin Fitzgibbon, who goes all Paul Brady on us, “Lakes of Ponchartrain” once again comes out to play, as does the inimitable storytelling of Tom Waits with The Jigantics country treatment of the Mule Variations-period “Hold On”.  This is all well and good but we mustn’t overlook the energy-fuelled “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”, no not the Tom Waits song but instead Hayes Carll’s powerhouse of a Country rocker, which is given the Jigantics Cajun treatment here.  Having heard Daisy Roots, I can only imagine that the band are a treat live.

Jon Chapman | Forgotten Songs | Album Review | Self Release | 27.02.14

Sheffield-based singer/songwriter Jon Chapman returns with ten self-penned songs each equipped with instantly accessible and highly melodic hooks. Rather than gazing at his toes while delivering these songs, we get the impression that Jon is singing outwards and upwards in an almost jubilant manner, hardly the stuff of the introspective singer/songwriter, more in celebration of the act of living and breathing with the music that goes hand in hand with it.  Whether the song celebrates getting away in the summertime, good food, good wine and good conversation or the uplifting sensation of witnessing the rising sun, Jon manages to cheer us all up with little effort.  I say ‘little effort’ but Forgotten Songs was in fact a good four years in the making, with Jon tackling most of the instruments himself, along with some finely tuned multi-layered vocals, soliciting the help from one or two old friends from the now defunct outfit The Hemingway Society; Nick Mather on drums and Chris Evans on lead guitar on the opener Get It Right and Gareth Dickenson on piano for the co-written “Get Away in the Sun”.  Finally Jon turns in some killer harmonies on the album closer “Somewhere to Lie Down”, very much wearing his Beatles/Beach Boys influences on his sleeve.  Wrapped in a sleeve that features a 2 year-old Chapman on his doorstep, kitted out in cowboy outfit, presumably awaiting high noon or sundown, the optimistic Forgotten Songs once again demonstrates the talents of a gifted musician just waiting for something equally appealing to come along; for people to take notice and hopefully with this, they will. 

Cahalen Morrison and Eli West | I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands | Album Review | Self Release | 02.03.14

It doesn’t seem all that long ago since the last album by Cahalen Morrison and Eli West dropped onto the doormat.  This was the first time I’d come across these two exceptionally tasty musicians, who from the very start demonstrated the way American folk music should be approached; with no small measure of assurance and confidence, but at the same time with immediate accessibility and completely devoid of musical clutter.  Produced by Tim O’Brien, Morrison and West’s third album takes its title from a lyric in Morrison’s biting “Livin’ in America”, a masterful bluegrass number which effectively sets the tone for the rest of the album, perfectly demonstrating the duo’s musical chops and their almost sibling-esque close vocal harmonies.  Essentially a duo, the two musicians are joined by Erin Youngberg on bass together with a couple of guesting fiddle players, Ryan Drickey and Brittany Haas as well as O’Brien himself.  Well, if Tim O’Brien is already in the studio, you might as well find him a mandolin and a bouzouki, both of which will always come in handy in his very capable hands.

Carrie Tree | Home to the Invisible | Album Review | Wild Cedar Records | 11.03.14

For Carrie Tree’s second album, the Brighton-based singer/songwriter travels to the continent of Africa in search of the rhythms previously investigated by the likes of Paul Simon and Damon Albarn in order to assist her with her search for highly emotive artistic expression.  For these South Africa sessions Carrie is joined by Albert Mazibuko, one of the original Ladysmith Black Mambazo singers and Zamo Mbutho (from Miriam Makeba’s band), who between them bring a distinctive world roots feel, along with the inclusion of such instrumental flavouring from the kora, gimbri, mbira and endingini, effectively making both “Mama Kita” and “Thousand Days” stand out tracks along with one or two others.  Reminiscent at times of Martha Tilston, especially on “Wild Winds”, Carrie’s voice, as delicate as gossamer, flitters above some extraordinary arrangements throughout, not least on a pretty faithful interpretation of Portishead’s “Glory Box”, which indicates possibly where Carrie Tree’s influences lie.  Despite her intimate relationship with an acoustic guitar, Carrie is unafraid to experiment with sonic trinkets, some of which are applied perfectly well here.   

Adrian Nation | Live at Crossroads | Album Review | Laburnum Bridge | 12.03.14

Adrian Nation is one of those folk troubadours who appears to have his own steadily growing cult following.  Listening to this singer/songwriter and guitarist often feels like listening to Steve Knightley with a John Martyn backing.  This, his first live album, came about pretty much by accident and by his own admission its the only way to go; no planning, no pre-recording anxiety, just a good night that happens to have been recorded for Dutch radio.  Live At Crossroads doesn’t have anything to do with selling one’s soul to the Devil, but once at these particular crossroads, in this case the name of the actual radio sessions he was invited to perform at, some magic happened along and the result is a rather convincing live album that reflects what you would probably get at one of his gigs.  Performing just nine songs, including seven self-penned, one bonus item and the one non-original, Richard Thompson’s show-stopping “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, included largely because audiences often ask about it, and armed with a crisp-sounding acoustic guitar, the recording is pretty much a note-perfect affair, which I should imagine pleases the performer as much as the audience.  With handy lyric booklet complete with the dates the songs were written and a brief summary of what the songs mean to their composer, Live At Crossroads comes across as a nice substitute for that one occasion when you can’t actually get to Adrian Nation’s gig.

Curtis Eller’s American Circus | How To Make It In Hollywood | Album Review | Self Release | 15.03.14

A nice big fat sound permeates Curtis Eller’s new release featuring his American Circus.  Part-musician, part circus act, part all American one-off, Curtis Eller is a born eccentric, a throwback to a bygone age of vaudevillian minstrel entertainment, Buster Keaton-esque slapstick humour and circus clowning, boxing rings and showgirls but all delivered with a contemporary street attitude; a song and dance man for our times.   From the man who has been known to do pigeon impressions while standing on the back of an upright chair, we get the feeling that nothing could possibly surprise us anymore.  On How To Make It In Hollywood, there are no major surprises, it’s all pretty much what we expect from Curtis, great songs, full-on energy performances, themes laid bare before our eyes for all to see in the titles alone; “1929”, “Busby Berkley Funeral”, “The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon”, “Three More Minutes With Elvis” and the album opener, which pretty much sets the scene, “Old Time Religion”, delivered not unlike Tom Waits on helium.  It’s all thoroughly engaging from the start and feels almost as if a curtain was raised before the show began.  Before the curtain finally goes down after the eulogising “Thunder and Beehives”, there’s a sense that we know a little bit more about Curtis Eller’s fascinating world.  Joined by his band of minstrels, the American Circus, featuring Louis Landry on drums, percussion, keyboards and accordion, Shea D Broussard providing harmony vocals and hand percussion and Dana Marks also on harmony vocals, the album provides something of a snapshot of what to expect on the band’ s forthcoming tour.

Blair Dunlop | House of Jacks | Album Review | Rooksmere | 24.03.14

It’s punchy folk rock right from the start on Blair Dunlop’s second solo studio album, the eagerly anticipated follow up 2012’s Blight And Blossom.  Once again teaming up with producer Mark Hutchinson, Blair appears to be stretching out as a potentially important British songwriter with some highly personal songs, not least the title song which sees the singer, songwriter and guitarist wearing his heart most definitely on his sleeve.  With the opening song picking up where the Albion Band left off, “Something’s Gonna Give Way” employs the same sort of hard driving folk rock arrangement that his dad’s old sparring partners once used sometime between the Summer of Love and the miasma of the late 1970s, while addressing issues of prejudice from an outsider’s perspective with devastating results.  Nostalgia weaves an interesting thread through some of the songs, with “45s (c.69)” loaded with popular culture references of the day, the day of course being sometime in the late 1960s, known only too well to those who claim to have ‘been there’ yet also to those like Blair who demonstrate enough interest to re-discover this pivotal time in our history, where ‘getting high once the needle drops’ was almost a daily routine.  It may be nostalgic but it’s certainly not sentimental, reminiscent of Bert Jansch’s description of the Soho folk troubadour scene of the Les Cousins era on his song “Daybreak”.  Blair returns to this theme later in the album with “45s (c14)”, bringing us bang up to date but describing a slightly less evocative era.  If the title song “House of Jacks” and the equally tender “Fifty Shades of Blue” both reveal a sense of vulnerability, then “Different Schools” demonstrates a certain strength with one of the most solid vocal performances on the album, while addressing the problems we seem to have in communicating with one another, yet communicating this firmly and with a mature arrangement to go with it.  Perhaps this indicates the direction the former Albion Band front man takes in future.  Concluding with the one non-original song on the album, “Song of Two Bridges”, written by Ashley Hutchings and Ken Nicol, Blair ends on a note of tender contemplation, returning to the one man one guitar format.  Elsewhere on the album Blair is joined by Tim Harries on bass, Guy Fletcher on drums, violin and mandolin, Jacob Stoney on keyboards, Mark Hutchinson on guitars, backing vocals and percussion, Angharad Jenkins on violin, Larkin Poe’s Rebecca Lovell providing some backing vocals and Simon Care on melodeon; a fine team of players who may well have contributed to one of the finest albums of the year.

Tumbling Bones | Loving a Fool | Album Review | Self Release | 28.03.14

Delicious three-part harmonies seem to be at the heart of this album by multi-instrumentalists Pete Winne, Jake Hoffman and Kyle Morgan, otherwise known as Tumbling Bones.  The Portland-based trio recorded their full-length debut album in an 18th century farmhouse in Maine, breathing new life into old style bluegrass picking, such as the traditional “Bound To Ride”, which demonstrates their chops as fine players as well as informed singers.  The revelation though is in the songwriting, especially on the title song “Loving the Fool”, written by Morgan, which could for all intents and purposes have been written in the 1940s.  The old Louvin Brothers standard “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby”, memorably covered by Alison Krauss on the eve of her worldwide success, gets a delightfully rich bluegrass arrangement here, with some of the album’s most astonishing harmonies.  Further demonstration of the trio’s harmonious vocal credentials can be found on the two a cappella inclusions, the traditional “Bright Morning Stars” and George A Young’s “Shady Green Pastures”, clearly indicating the trio are equally at home with bluegrass’s inherent gospel leanings.   Adopting some old time effects in order to conjure bygone radio days, Bill Monroe’s “A Voice From On High” is also a clear indication as to where Tumbling Bones’ musical roots lie.  There’s also a nod to rockabilly in the bands twangy guitar treatment of the Rotten Belly Blues song “Money is for Spending”.  Produced with the help of Chris Connors who also plays percussion and keyboards, Tumbling Bones are also joined by Tim Findlen on percussion, ukulele and saw and Tyler Leinhardt on fiddle, fattening out further an already big sound.

Jess Morgan | Langa Langa | Album Review | Self Release | 01.04.14

One of the joys of reviewing music over the last few years has been those occasions when a familiar voice comes along delivering unfamiliar songs.  Jess Morgan has been doing this for almost five years now, with each release presented in her own distinctive and immediately recognisable voice together with an assured claw-hammer guitar style, perfectly suited to that voice.  First and foremost though, Jess Morgan is a storyteller and it’s always the songs thatgrab our attention, like musical novellas to be enjoyed in one sitting.  This was the case with her 2010 debut All Swell and then again a couple of years ago with her Pledge Music Campaign funded Aye Me, both packed with instantly accessible and appealing Jess Morgan originals.  Jess’s third full-length release Langa Langa once again delivers on a promise to bring excellent story songs, with some delightful musical arrangements, some featuring a handful of choice musicians including Sarah Smout on cello, Prue Ward on fiddle and John Parker on double bass.  Opening with a song ironically called “The Last Song”, Jess immediately engages us with her first story and takes us on a journey with ten songs written from notes compiled during her travels around the world, plus a reading of the traditional “Silver Dagger”.  Close up and personal, some of the songs lean toward autobiography, such as “Freckles in the Sun” and “Cavalier”, which one assumes are reflections on the songwriter’s personal experience and “Modern World” which reflects our growing detachment from these current times, while “Adam and Genevieve”, “Movie Scene” and “The Lone Cashier” exemplify Jess’s apparent comfort zone in writing modern parables, each imbued with alluring characters.

West My Friend | When the Ink Dries | Album Review | Self Release | 02.04.14

The second album by British Columbia’s West My Friend is even more difficult to categorise than their first, which is a good thing.  The Victoria-based acoustic outfit once again investigate the possibilities of their own indie-folk roots with a dozen new songs, some of which are treated to some lavish string and brass arrangements that effortlessly take the songs to an entirely different place, especially the lilting “Missing You”, which builds to a thoroughly uplifting climax.  Orchestral arrangement goes one step further on the epic “Cat Lady Song”, which is delivered like a mini Broadway production, while the brass accompaniment on “Thin Hope” seems to have no problem bringing to mind the distinctive atmosphere of Sundays in the park, over by the bandstand.  With some fine four-part harmonies in places, the band, which includes Eden Oliver who also plays guitar and flute, Alex Rempel on mandolin, Jeff Poynter on accordion and Adam Bailey on bass, fearlessly blend their influences and styles in order to create something quite extraordinarily new and vibrant from the tender “Ode to Sylvia Plath”, the bluesy “Troubles”, to the highly inventive French-influenced “The Tattoo That Loved Her Anyway”.

Ward Thomas | Footnotes | EP Review | Self Release | 03.04.14

This confident debut EP from British Country duo Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas packs an immediate punch with the hard rocking opening song “The Good and the Right”, which seems to be made for radio and has been getting some air time up and down the country.  The 19-year old twin sisters who fell in love with country music after being introduced to the likes of the Dixie Chicks and Carrie Underwood by a Canadian cousin, manage to bridge a rather large gap between Nashville and their rural Hampshire home.  The title song “Footnotes” caught the eye of Nashville session musician Bobby Blazier, which then led to some extensive recording with such noted musicians as Dan Dugmore and Chris Rodriquez.  The four track EP, which features three songs co-written by the sisters also includes a heartfelt reading of Dougie MacLean’s captivating alternative Scots National Anthem “Caledonia”.  A promising debut.

Fiona Hunter | Fiona Hunter | Album Review | Rusty Squash Horn | 11.04.14

Malinky’s Fiona Hunter goes it alone with this her first solo release, which reveals something we already knew, that Fiona is in possession of a voice that can certainly handle itself.  While Fiona takes care of the cello, the singer is surrounded by a handful of fine instrumentalists including Matheu Watson on guitar, Euan Burton on double bass and Mike Vass, who also produces, on just about anything he can put his hands on.  The ten songs included here are from her native Glasgow, each treated to some fine arrangements and exquisite musicianship, with Fiona’s assured voice taking centre stage.  Fiona’s reading of Ewan McVicar’s “Shift and Spin/The Shoemaker” is as good as anything I’ve heard in a broad church we recognises as Scottish music.   

Patsy Reid | The Brightest Path | Album Review | Classy Trad Records | 12.04.14

Musical excellence for sure as traditional Scots fiddle tunes are treated to some inspired arrangements with an occasional jazz flavour, courtesy of Fraser Fifield’s soprano sax.  Patsy Reid is a busy musician who spares enough time to make an album that feels like it was given all the time in the world.  Not all tunes though, with one or two gorgeous songs, Ewan MacPherson’s “The River Princes” for one as well as Patsy’s take on Hem’s sublime “Half Acre” and not forgetting the dreamy version of Patty Griffin’s “Kite Song”.

Alister Atkin and the Ghost Line Carnival | To Evangeline | Album Review | Self Release | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 13.04.14

Canterbury luthier Alister Atkin’s second album release, this time with his new band the Ghost Line Carnival, demonstrates that his talent is not just confined to his craftsman’s hands; he can also write a good song or two with memorable melodies and engaging lyrics.  The songs on To Evangeline are inspired by Alister’s frequent visits to Nova Scotia and some of that Canadian landscape appears to be ingrained in the fabric of these songs.  With inventive arrangements throughout, the band maintain a particular sound that is often adorned with Annie Whitehead’s trombone embellishments. 

Amelia White | Old Postcard | Album Review | White-Wolf Records | 14.04.14

Just about everything about Old Postcard, the new album by Virginia-raised now Nashville-based singer/songwriter Amelia White, seems to point to an earlier, more difficult time in her life, where family ties were all but severed in her late teens.  The cover photo speaks volumes, even if we have no clue of what the occasion actually represents.  Innocence and officiousness captured in monochrome, not unlike those difficult shots of John F Kennedy Jnr, saluting on cue at the feet of his illustrious family survivors.  Amelia isn’t saddened by the death of a parent in this picture; rather it details a young girl gazing head on through horn-rimmed spectacles at an uncertain future.  Amelia’s naive painting on the reverse further identifies a need for escape; the road goes on forever and so on.  Devoid of nostalgia or sentimentality, the issues addressed in these songs owe more to honest reflection, autobiographical catharsis and coming to terms with time.  We need look no further than “Hollow Heart” to assume we’re up to speed with Amelia’s stance on her own past.  

Troy Faid | Live By Numbers | Album Review | Gin House Records | 16.04.14

While enjoying a relaxed Bergman-esque game of chess with Death, the bare-footed hooded figure with Bukowski and company at his feet, Troy Faid sets out some of the thinking behind this his third release.  A singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist amongst the Leeds-based Gin House Records project, strides over his blues roots captured on his two previous releases and arrives refreshed with a plethora of new ideas encapsulated in nine new songs that essentially traverse Faid’s philosophical and socio-political thoughts, each balanced with some fine musicianship. 

The Young’uns | Never Forget | Album Review | Hereteu Records | 17.04.14

The Young’uns’ Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes appear to have at least a couple of trump cards up their sleeves.  Not only do they possess three strong and empathetic voices, which effortlessly dovetail into a richly unified whole, but they also have a really good songwriter in their midst in the shape of Sean Cooney, who for the opener of this album writes a poignant song for our times.  “The Biscuits of Bull Lane” immediately reveals a thoughtful conscience, poetically addressing one of modern society’s major failures; the elimination of the reactionary principles of the far right.  This short and succinct story of human kindness in the wake of drummer Lee Rigby’s death last year, provides the album with its heart from the start.  We find this sort of compassionate understanding across the Young’uns repertoire, with songs that have an unyielding focus; there’s never a throw away song.  There’s a third trump card stuffed up this trio’s proverbial sleeve and it doesn’t actually take very long to find it.  The trio have a canny ability to arrange songs written by others in their own distinctive style, which appears to breathe new life into the stories.  The late Teesside songwriter Graeme Miles for instance has two songs here, the brutal industrial force of the a cappella “Jack Ironside” and the epic rural hunt ballad “The Running Fox”, while Jez Lowe provides a comment on racism in “Hands Feet”, featuring a chorus by Manchester school children.  Sydney Carter’s now widely familiar Peasants Revolt anthem “John Ball” also gets an airing once again.  Traditional songs and shanties also figure in the Teesside trio’s repertoire as testified through the coupling of “Blood Red Roses” and “Shallow Brown”, while their reading of Cicely Fox Smith’s poem “Rosario” provides the album with one of its most tender moments.  Closing with David Eagle’s light-hearted companion piece to the album opener, “A Lovely Cup of Tea” offers a rare insight into the mind of a rehabilitated fascist; humanity restored with a little help from Hassan’s homemade biscuits and of course a lovely cup of tea! Food (and drink) for thought.

Pete Morton | The Frappin’ and Ramblin’ Pete Morton | Album Review | Fellside | 18.04.14

Pete Morton’s eleventh album to date and the first to be recorded and released by Fellside, hits us like a verbal tsunami off the Cumbrian coastline.  Since creating his individual folk rapping style or ‘frapping’, the lyrics seem to flood the sonic landscape with not a single wasted word.  You get the feeling that Pete’s got a lot to say but only has a limited time to say it all in, and in the case of “Rambling Through Old England”, the entire social history of England in nine verses.  It’s startling in its portentousness but no sign of pretentiousness.  You may need to sit down and catch your breath for a moment afterwards.  If we need to be reminded of our own social ills and the current state of the nation, then Pete Morton provides the ideal voice through which to deliver the message.  Chock full of humour with the occasional ‘bite’ the songs borrow from established folk songs, paying homage to the traditional “A-Begging I Will Go” and Ewan MacColl’s “The Manchester Rambler”, each given Pete’s idiosyncratic ‘frap’ treatment.  It’s not all wry humour and protest though, with one or two tender moments, such as the beautiful love song “The Love of You” and the closing lullaby “Bedside Song”, featuring Maggie Boyle on vocal and flute.  Other contributions come courtesy of Chris Parkinson on melodeon and accordion, Jon Brindley on fiddle and guitar, James Budden on bass and Linda Adams on vocals.

Patsy Matheson | Domino Girls | Album Review | Tomorrow Records | 19.04.14

Now the first thing we need to do with this review is avoid mentioning Patsy Matheson’s previous band, you know the one named after a Kate Bush song which was responsible for bringing this singer/songwriter to our attention a few years ago.  We don’t need to anymore; Patsy has proved herself as a solo performer several times over now, not only with her steady stream of album releases since 2009 but also with her engaging live performances.  Yep, what we have here is a bone fide solo performer who comes equipped with a growing repertoire of well-crafted self-penned songs, together with a fluid and uncluttered guitar style and a voice you don’t forget in a hurry.  There’s always something real about that highly individual voice; passionate, occasionally fragile but always undeniably honest.  Time and again Patsy writes songs that go hand in glove with this exceptional voice and on this new album the songs are further treated to sumptuous arrangements with a little help from the musicians she has managed to surround herself with, including Belinda O’Hooley, Sarah Smout and Anna Esslemont.  The nine original songs here have Patsy Matheson written all over them.  Whether they address the sinister world of computer hacking “From Your Computer”, the Platonic love of a male friend “Song for Norman” to real and sensual love “Seven Buttons”, Patsy commits herself to delivering her best performances of some of her most mature songs to date.  Patsy is also a gifted storyteller, who creates cinematic landscapes for her characters to thrive, such as Michael and Patricia in “The Hollies”, which features Anna Esslemont’s flirtatious fiddle accompaniment, which captures the spirit of the song perfectly, or the two un-named protagonists in the scary “Not the One”.  With just the one non-original song, “Chasing Rainbows”, written by Boo Hewerdine, which closes the album, Domino Girls should really be on your player right now, while the sleeve nonchalantly brightens up your coffee table, just in case friends pop round.

Fiona Rutherford | Sleep Sound | Album Review | Sleep Sound | 20.04.14

With a dozen atmospheric and beguiling compositions by Edinburgh-based harpist Fiona Rutherford, who explores the mysteries of sleep and the dreams, lullabies and nightmares that go with it, Sleep Sound scrutinises the various aspects of a good night’s sleep with a project originally commissioned for the Celtic Connections New Voices series of concerts.  Coming in at just under forty minutes, this particular night’s sleep has been condensed into twelve individual pieces that attempt to capture the essence of those familiar aspects of sleep, from settling down, tossing and turning, insomnia, flying dreams and the dreaded nightmare, each composed by Fiona and performed by a gathering of empathetic female musicians.  Mostly instrumental with one or two vocal parts, including the mesmerising “Lullaby” featuring the voices of Mairi Campbell, Amy Duncan and Rachel Newton, the album maintains inventiveness and imagination right through to the end, with just the one startling moment, which takes you by surprise upon each run through.  Fiona’s scream is possibly there to ensure that the soothing sounds of the Scottish harp doesn’t make you nod off, which I’m almost certain you won’t.

3 Boxes | Strings Attached | Album Review | Gregsongs | 20.04.14

Collaborative instrumental album featuring three renowned guitarists, Clive Gregson, Mark Griffiths and Andy Roberts, who between them have an impressive collective CV, featuring stints with Richard Thompson, The Shadows and Pink Floyd respectively.  The dozen self-penned tunes included here explore several musical genres from the bluesy, the folky to swing jazz and much more beyond with writing duties divided pretty democratically between the three.  Produced by John Wood, who himself has an equally impressive track record, the album will serve as an ideal soundtrack for some of your more contemplative moments, a nice one to stick on in the workshop while you luthiers out there put finishing touches to your latest masterpiece or a nice instructional disc for guitar students, but you need to be fearless and brave to tackle some of these compositions.  

Beverley Martyn | The Phoenix and the Turtle | Album Review | Les Cousins | 21.04.14

I have to say the first run through of this album had me twitching to begin with, especially the vocals, which initially had me wondering what sort of pain the singer was in; each syllable struggling to leave the body, a little like constipation.  This play through coincidentally ran alongside the singer popping up on BBC4’s screening of the recent Bert Jansch tribute concert at the Royal Festival Hall, where the singer spat out her signature tune “When the Levee Breaks”, a song Martyn used to perform with her band The Levee Breakers long before she came to prominence as Mrs John Martyn in the 1960s.  I sat and stared, somewhat bewildered at the whole thing, sort of thinking this is probably another Vashti Bunyan moment, another name from the past dug up by the newbies.  Then something strange happened.  The Phoenix And The Turtle began to grow on me and the voice, however wobbly, began to make sense, a little like Dylan’s voice did way back in the early 1960s.  Beverley Martyn’s voice still has a sense of the real about it, unpretentious, essentially well-worn but strangely soulful.  To be honest such songs as “Primrose Hill”, “The Ocean” and “Sweet Honesty” were recorded a good forty-five years ago and no one expects a voice to travel that far without a few blemishes.  After a few more runs through I realised the voice is actually crucial to these songs and the inspiring musical arrangements that go with them.   “Reckless Jane”, the opening song, is apparently an early collaborative work with Nick Drake, which the two friends never got around to recording back in the early 1970s.  The sound recalls some of Drake’s early Five Leaves Left period songs, complete with the sort of string arrangements that Robert Kirby would’ve been pleased with.  Drake seemed to have had a fixation with the name Jane, having recorded at least three songs with that name in the title in his short recording career.  There’s only nine songs on this album but by the end you feel you’ve had a full-on emotional charge, with such songs as the first song Martyn wrote “Sweet Joy”, the Joan Armatrading styled “Nighttime”, the gritty blues of “Levee Breaks” and the Country-inflected “Potter’s Blues” with its memorable blue remembered hills refrain, finishing as all good albums should, with a cowboy song (“Jesse James”).

The New Line | Can’t Hold the Wheel | Album Review | Self Release | 23.04.14

With Brendan Taaffe’s mbira taking almost centre stage on this collection of traditional and contemporary folk songs, the inflections of Africa sit neatly with an instantly familiar American repertoire, especially on “Fall On My Knees”, which wouldn’t have been lost on Graceland.  The interplay between the mbira and the gourd banjo, played here by Adam Hurt, creates a fluid and utterly relaxing base for everything else to rest upon, which includes Colin McCaffrey’s atmospheric electric guitar and Stefan Amidon’s percussion, not to mention Brandan’s laid back and seemingly effortless vocals.  A completely new take on all those songs Doc Watson used to sing such as “Red Rocking Chair” and “Little Sadie” as well as John Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”, Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” and the obscure Dylan song “Nobody ‘Cept You”, featuring Mike Olson on trumpet.  A joy to listen to.     

Jacquelyn Hynes | Silver and Wood | Album Review | Hobgoblin | 28.04.14

The first thing you tend to notice when listening to Jacquelyn Hynes’ new album Silver And Wood is the very distinct human touch; every note played on either silver or wooden flute is accompanied by those all too personal sounds, every breath is there to accentuate the difference between music made by people and music made by machines.  Half Irish and with roots in County Clare, the multi-instrumentalist (as well as flute Jacqy plays sax, piano, melodica and uilleann pipes) is steeped in the traditional tunes of Ireland and explores some of the more ambient inflections of those traditions on such as the haunting “She Moves Through the Fair” featuring J Eoin on vocals.  On “Greensleeves”, Jacqy offers a specially written spoken poem over a harpsichord base, which brings the quintessential English into the mix.

Gavin Pennycook | Octave Fiddle Baritone Violin | Album Review | GCP | 01.05.14

Possibly the very first album to be solely devoted to the octave fiddle, Gavin Pennycook’s album comprises of thirteen instrumental pieces, which sonically fall somewhere between the viola and the cello.  The deep resonance that octave strings bring to the fiddle gives a much more meaty overall sound on both Irish and Scots tunes, both of which Pennycook handles equally well, along with English, Welsh and Scandinavian material as well.  The instrument’s character comes out particularly well on the Fyvie Castle solo piece, the octave strings enhancing the brooding feel of the piece.  With Ewan MacPherson and John Morran helping out on guitar/jew’s Harp and guitar/mandola respectively, the trio make an impressive sound, full of dynamism and immediacy.  A fiddle album with a difference.

House of Hats | This Love | Album Review | Willow Walk Records | 02.05.14

The debut album by Brighton-based House of Hats, showcases some fine vocal harmonies by four musicians who seem to have been destined to perform together.  The band, featuring the combined talents of brothers Alex and Rob Gigante on guitars and bass respectively, Al-Anoud Al-Omran (Noddy) on guitar and piano and James Kuszewski on ukulele, have already been compared to CSN in their vocal prowess, but can rest assured that they have their own particular sound, which flourishes throughout the eleven songs here.  Produced by Pete Smith, This Love marks the start of what could be a promising future for this young band.

The Sweet Lowdown | May | Album Review | Self Release | 03.05.14

Victoria-based trio The Sweet Lowdown, comprising Amanda Blied on guitar, Shanti Bremer on banjo and Miriam Sonstenes on fiddle, keep the spirit of old time music alive with their startling three-part harmonies and informed musical chops.  The divide between original songs and tunes such as “The Heart is a Hollow Thing” and “Big Wave” and traditional fare such as “Reuben’s Train” and “Sail Away Ladies” is very much blurred.  Produced by Adrian Dolan, May showcases just the sort of music that should bring a festival marquee alive with that familiar old time bluegrass sound.  Catch them while you can.

Hafdis Huld | Home | Album Review | Reveal | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.05.14

Icelandic singer/songwriter Hafdis Huld’s third album of original songs leans towards the more gentle side of folk/pop with some lush acoustic arrangements and quirky lyricism all delivered in an almost whispered vocal.  Having nurtured a reputation for being a little bit cookie, especially during interviews, Hafdis Huld comes across as a little bit eccentric, but in a refreshingly engaging way.  Home for this young performer happens to be an old house on the outskirts of Reykjavik and there’s a strong sense of the homely weaving a thread through the eleven songs on this album.  All self-written with one or two co-writes, such as the almost whimsical closer “I Miss the Rain”, written with Boo Hewerdine and the equally whimsical “Pop Song” co-written by Nik Kershaw, the album seems to insist on remaining light and breezy for as long as it possibly can.  

Megson | In a Box | Album Review | EDJ Records | 10.05.14

A few moments before I went on to introduce Megson at the Wath Festival recently, Stu Hannah whispered in my ear ‘we were once introduced as a brother/sister act from Tyneside’ to which I responded ‘then I’ll make sure I introduce you as a husband/wife team tonight’.  Stu then hastily followed that with ‘it’s the ‘Tyneside’ bit I object to!’  Teessiders born and bred, Stu and Debbie Hannah maintain some of their North Eastern roots on this the duo’s sixth album to date, their first in four years, while addressing some of the rights of passage that we are all familiar with; birth, death, love and life as well as a strong sense of the passage of time and how we deal with it, notably in the title song, which will no doubt attract strong feelings of empathy from anyone who has ever placed a box in an attic or loft.  Packed with gorgeous arrangements throughout, the songs range from the traditional “Still I Love Him”, which features a guest appearance by Jess Morgan, who also designed the sleeve, together with some unexpected historical storytelling centred around the tale of a Mohawk visitor to Middlesbrough by the name of Ska-Run-Ya-Te, aka Moses Carpenter, who arrived on these shores in the late nineteenth century and who now rests in a Teesside cemetery, not to mention the starkly atmospheric opener “Clifton Hall Mine”, which features compelling shared vocals from the duo.  The album, which also features appearances by Seth Lakeman on “Bet Beesley and Her Wooden Man” and members of The Willows on a couple of songs, comes complete with clear and concise sleeve notes, illustrated by Jess Morgan and which even features a dictionary definition of the term ‘Friends’ as in the context of the popular US sitcom.  That must be a first.  A beautiful album by one of this country’s finest duos. 

Merrymouth | Wenlock Hill | Album Review | Navigator | 10.05.14

This second helping from former Ocean Colour Scene frontman Simon Fowler’s acoustic trio and follow up to their acclaimed eponymous debut, once again sees the band’s transition from Britpop to folkpop, initially sounding for all intents and purposes like an Oysterband tribute band on the title song, but sufficiently recovering to present a further ten songs, ranging from their own richly-arranged self-penned numbers to a couple of unexpected stripped-down covers from the ‘old days’, including a spiffing interpretation of the Stone Roses’ “I Am the Resurrection”, complete with a bold piano accompaniment and luscious strings and a mid-1970s Kinks-styled presentation of The Stranglers’ 1979 hit “Duchess”.  The mournful “He Was a Friend of Mine” is a solemn reminder of the death of John Lennon in ‘New York Town’, which serves as a communal lament, reflecting on one of the most appalling episodes in the history of popular music.  With fellow Ocean Colour Scene bandmate Dan Sealey on bass and Adam Berry on keyboards, the album also features contributions by John McCusker and Chas Hodges (Chas and Dave).  

Moulettes | Constellations | Album Review | Navigator | 11.05.14

The third album by alt-folk outfit Moulettes showcases once again the band’s multi-influenced playfulness and cinematic scope with a further ten highly inventive compositions, drawing from a wealth of musical ideas and expressions.  Their full-on and at times overblown production offers little respite from the brain-pounding the band tends to offer up; there’s no “Songbird” equivalent here on the new album, which for my money was the band’s defining moment on their last release The Bear’s Revenge (2012) and remains unmatched in its beauty.  Occasionally, a bit of the sublime doesn’t go amiss.  Having said that, the songs here definitely deliver on the band’s mission to take us on a musical journey, to explore the outer limits of musical arrangement, even if it occasionally wanders into Wagnerian darkness, “Elegy” for example, which brings in the voices of the Unthank elves to give it that otherworldly aspect that they do extremely well.  A similar excursion occurs on “Lady Vengeance” with all the histrionic melodrama of a winged Valkyrie, courtesy of Arthur Brown of all people.  Constellations is clever, but occasionally the cleverness threatens to tax the listening pleasure.

Brigitte DeMeyer | Savannah Road | Album Review | Brigitte DeMeyer Music | 12.05.14

Inspired by Gregg Allman’s book My Cross To Bear, the title song on Brigitte DeMeyer’s sixth album Savannah Road centres around the Deep South, specifically Georgia, with its vivid peach-lined back roads and lazy summer memories purred to a bluesy steel guitar accompaniment, courtesy of Will Kimbrough, who comes along for the ride.  Having travelled those dusty roads from the Midwest down to Southern California and eventually on to Nashville, Brigitte DeMeyer connects with the feel of the South through a dozen or so songs entrenched in her own brand of acoustic soul from the wistful “Please Believe Me”, the lilting dreaminess of the jazzy back porch “Big Man’s Shoes” to the blues-drenched “Build Me a Fire”, which would give Bonnie Raitt a run for her money.  The essence of the South in thirteen songs, you can almost hear the cicadas.  

Lexie Green | Breathe | Album Review | Fifty Road Records | 14.05.14

The debut album by British singer/songwriter Lexie Green brings together a bunch of songs cultivated over a six year period, stretching back to her first tentative steps in songwriting back in 2007.  Although Lexie, the shortened derivative of Alexandria, has only been a singer/songwriter and musician for a relatively short period, it’s hardly noticeable in these songs.  From the soulfully slick and arresting groove of the opener “Frozen Photographs” to the more whimsical “Just a Minute of Your Time”, which comes in at precisely sixty seconds, Lexie turns her hand to storytelling in an unexpected excursion into a passionate world of Central American (presumably) with the dramatic “Goodbye Herotio”, complete with atmospheric tropical rainstorm effect and scary gunfire.  Breathe also has its joyful finger-clicking radio-friendly fare with the bouncy “In This Together”, which is sure to have shoulders swaying at venues in the southern counties.

Birds of Chicago | Live From Space | Album Review | Self Release | 20.05.14

Just in case you were wondering, Allison Russell and JT Nero to my knowledge have never been launched from Cape Canaveral to play an interstellar gig, despite the title of Birds of Chicago’s latest album.  Space happens to be one of the band’s favourite venues in Evanston, Illinois, essentially home turf, and an ideal place to record the band’s first live album.  You may also be wondering why a band that has only been around for a nanosecond and that has only previously released just the one studio album should be releasing a live album so soon.  It could have something to do with the fact that if you’ve been lucky enough to catch this outfit live in any of its various combinations, you will no doubt have thoroughly enjoyed what you witnessed and would therefore like to take some of it home with you.  Not the polished studio tracks laced with overdubs and unfamiliar guest contributions, but precisely what you just experienced.  Live From Space does just that and for this special concert, recorded in the summer of last year, JT and Ali are joined by the ‘cadillac edition’ of the band, featuring various Clouds members including Chris Merrill, Drew Lindsay, Dan Abu-Absi, Chris Neal and Nick Chambers, bringing alive the big fat Birds of Chicago sound, topped off by two of the most distinctive voices on the Americana scene.  The whole range of their diverse sound is captured here with the party vibe of “Funeral” and “Sugar Dumpling”, the highly danceable “Sans Souci” to the stunning “Sparrow”, featuring one of Ali’s most soulful performances to date.  The album features a generous seventeen selections, not exclusively from the Birds’ repertoire, but also one or two selections from JT and Ali’s respective projects JT and the Clouds (“Fever Dream”, “Funeral”, “Nobody Wants to be Alone Nobody Wants to Die”) and Po’Girl (the superb “Kathy”) as well as one or two from JT and Ali’s initial Mountains/Forests project and precursor to the Birds of Chicago collective project (“Mountains/Forests”, “North Star”).  If Po’Girl, JT and the Clouds or indeed Birds of Chicago have crossed your path over the last few years, then you are almost guaranteed to enjoy this live set.

Crossharbour | Crossharbour | Album Review | Higlet Recordings | 23.05.14

From the opening few bars of the self-titled debut by London-based Irish quintet Crossharbour, there’s an immediate sense of quality musicianship permeating this selection of songs and tunes, each performed with informed precision and largely based around the sprightly flute playing of Órlaith McAuliffe.  Sonically, lines are blurred between what’s traditional and what’s self-penned, although some of the original material does have a bright and fresh contemporary feel, such as the “Trigonometry” set.  With some scintillating interplay between each of the musicians, Sam Proctor on fiddle, Philippe Barnes on guitar, flute and whistles, Tad Sargent on bódhran and bouzouki, the Crossharbour sound is further enhanced by the singing of Rosie Hodgson, especially on the album’s opener “Wedding Dress”.  Creating a familiar sound that is distinctively Irish, the band could just be the ticket for some of the summer festivals just around the corner.

Rab Noakes and Barbara Dickson | Reunited | EP Review | Neon Records | 24.05.14

Released to coincide with Barbara Dickson and Rab Noakes’ current UK tour, Reunited provides an ideal snapshot of the duo, captured in a stripped down to bare essentials recording, so much so, that the recording could quite easily be mistaken for a pre-gig run through in the hotel room prior to the gig; the six selections have that sort of unpolished immediacy.  The songs were actually recorded in John Cavanagh’s Muirend ganghut studio in just one afternoon and the freshness is apparent throughout.  With unavoidable nostalgia, the two singers relish in covering old ground with such songs as Chips Moman and Dan Penn’s undisputed soul classic “Do Right Woman” and the mid-1950’s Doris Day hit “Que Sera Sera”, which should almost guarantee a right good sing-along at their gigs.  Having met almost fifty years ago, the two have remained firm friends and their paths have often crossed but the current tour and accompanying EP heralds a timely reminder of the importance of these two artists together and in their own right.

Damian Helliwell’s Metta | Metta | Album Review | Eigg Records | 26.05.14

The word ‘Metta’ translates from the Pali language as loving-kindness, friendship and benevolence as well as being in some certain Buddhist schools, the first of the four sublime states.  A good word then to sum up the instrumental music composed here by Damian Helliwell and performed by a close-knit gathering of friends.  As a compositional debut, the piece is quite startling.  You would imagine stuff like this takes a few preliminary efforts. Scottish in feel, the selection of tunes occasionally veer off into the world of Klezmer and other European influences, but throughout, the music is played with passion and drive.  A music reviewer should really, in a perfect world, be ahead of the game when it comes to the specifics in musical forms but the fact that this music was recorded in the ancient Pythagorean tuning of A=432hz leaves me with a fantastically vacant glazed-eyed expression.  No matter, as long as the musicians know what that is, as well as what they are doing, then it’s all well and good with me.  With Damian Helliwell taking care of the mandolin and tenor Banjo duties, Eilidh Shaw provides some tastefully rendered  fiddle, while Andy Thorburn is seated at the piano, with the rhythm section of Jen Hill, formerly of the Southern Tenant Folk Union on double bass and the equally clued-up Donald Hay on percussion.

McNeill & Heys | Any Other Morning | Album Review | Transition Records | 07.06.14

Okay, I have to be honest here, these days each time I open the seal of a new CD release that features a guitar player and a fiddle player, I whisper under my breath ‘oh no, not again’. There’s nothing wrong with this instrumental combination, if there was and we unanimously avoided them, then we would probably have never witnessed such delights as Carthy and Swarb, Robin and Barry (Dransfield not Gibb), Hayes and Cahill, Grappelli and Reinhardt, Zappa and Harris and more recently those two whippersnappers Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar and the list goes on.  I could name many more but time is short and space is limited.  What makes Jack McNeill and Charlie Heys so refreshingly different is that they create atmosphere almost effortlessly, blending their musical prowess on both the guitar and fiddle with songs that conjure the spirit of the elements, as illustrated on the atmospheric cover artwork, not only on this, but also on the duo’s three previous albums, Light Up All The Beacons (2008), The Northern Road (2010) and Two Fine Days (2012), where turbulent skies, troubled waters and misty valleys reflect the stories revealed through the songs and tunes.  Ranging from the under two minute instrumental fiddle tune “Jig For Joyce” to the veritable opus of the title song Any Other Morning, the album succeeds in keeping the listener engaged in a certain mood, which is quietly contemplative and seductively ambient.  Delicately produced by Calum Malcolm (LAU), Any Other Morning also includes the one non-original song, a sensitively arranged version of Phil Gaston’s “Navigator”, memorably performed and released by The Pogues.  I have to concede that the very next time I see a CD with a fiddle and guitar on the cover, I’ll think twice before assigning it to the bottom of the pile.   

False Lights | False Lights | EP Review | Self Release | 08.06.14

If two artists on the contemporary folk scene should get together to set well-known traditional folk fare to a full-blown rock setting, then the names Sam Carter and Jim Moray spring immediately to mind.  It was waiting to happen. False Lights is that new project and this initial four-song EP demonstrates perfectly that the genre known as Folk Rock is far from dead.  There’s no apparent pretension, it’s just plain good music.  The traditional “Skewball” has already been given the open-tuning acoustic guitar treatment in the hands of Martin Carthy, together with a distinctly Irish slant on the song by Andy Irvine, as well as countless others I hasten to add, but rarely has it sounded so immediate and fresh as it does here.  Many remember folk daddies Fairport Convention in one of its many incarnations dabbling with “Polly on the Shore” in the mid 1970s, famously delivered in Trevor Lucas’s dulcet tones, but again on this version the band appear to adopt a brand new approach, utilising what could be mistaken for a Motown beat, to retell the story.  It was from the singing of Peter Bellamy that “The Maid of Australia” derives, who in turn collected the song from earlier versions by Norfolk folk singing legends Harry Cox and Walter Pardon.  Once again in the hands of False Lights, the song is revitalised with a contemporary arrangement, although not quite as full-blown as the rock and roll of the previous two selections.  Finally, the EP ends almost hymn-like, as Sam Carter gets his tonsils around Tennison’s “Crossing the Bar”, complete with church organ and stained glass windows, building to a Bellowhead-like festival of brass.  Under a cloak of secrecy, Sam and Jim have been working on this exciting new project, along with Sam Nadel on drums, Nick Cooke on melodeon and Tom Moore on violin, all of which will be fully revealed when the band make their debut appearance at Folk East in the summer.  Should be good judging by this initial offering. 

Martin Green | Crows’ Bones | Album Review | Reveal Records | 12.06.14

This interesting collaboration between LAU’s Martin Green, The Unthanks’ Becky Unthank, singer and multi-instrumentalist Inge Thomson and Swedish Nickelharpa player Nikolas Roswall, clearly evokes the sparse and deeply morose underbelly of the afterlife, populated by those who may or may not have shuffled off this mortal coil.  Built around the sparring vocals of both Becky Unthank and Inge Thomson, both of whom are possessed of quite different but equally otherworldly voices, the collection of songs and dirges ploughs the depths of misery hitherto unknown, creating a bleak soundtrack suitable for an M. Night Shyamalan production of Jude the Obscure.  Crow’s Bones is a light and shade album with no light, therefore no escape from the gloom.  As a statement of gloom it’s a triumph but as a record to return to time and again, it fails fantastically.  I personally cannot wait until Becky Unthank, one of this country’s finest singers, involves herself in something spectacularly upbeat before she falls victim to musical typecasting.

The Mae Trio | Housewarming | Album Review | Self Release | 13.06.14

This Melbourne-based trio consisting of sisters Maggie and Elsie Rigby, together with Anita Hillman, release their debut album to coincide with their forthcoming summer tour of the UK after a successful debut at Celtic Connections back in January.  Housewarming showcases the trio’s bright and cheerful take on contemporary Americana albeit performed with a very distinct Australian vernacular.  With a dozen self-penned songs, each utilising the trio’s evident flair for arrangement and equally evident mastery of the three part harmony, the Luke Plumb (Shooglenifty) produced debut also manages to sneak in the one non-original song, Kate Rusby’s “Lately”, which is tucked away right at the end, providing the album with a fine three-part a cappella conclusion.  With the obligatory fiddle, banjo, guitar and Anita’s cello accompaniment, one or two songs feature the marimba, notably on Maggie’s “Time Heals All Wounds”, which further reveals a fine acoustic blend that should serve the trio well at some of our major summer festivals.

Judy Dunlop | The Essential | Album Review | Self Release | 14.06.14

A fitting title for this collection of some of Judy Dunlop’s finest interpretations of traditional and contemporary songs.  ‘Essential’ not only describes this fine collection, but it’s also essential that we have such a singer of this standard around to convey these songs.  Anyone who’s had the good fortune to sit in the audience at one of Judy’s live shows will be able to bring to mind immediately that unmistakably, pure and inimitable voice, which is captured here not only delivering the old time gospel of songs of Doc Watson “The Long Journey”, an old children’s song by the late Harry Chapin “Flowers Are Red”, a dark ballad from the pen of Sydney Carter “Crow on the Cradle” or an array of contemporary songs by some of the song writers she has worked closely with, Mick Ryan, Ashley Hutchings and Julie Matthews.  With appearances by Blair Dunlop, John Tams, Jackie Oates and Barry Coope, as well as regular collaborators Jon Scaife, Steve Marsh and Paul Downes, Essential is a good starting point for those unfamiliar with the singing of Blair’s mum and will put you on until you catch Judy in person at your earliest convenience.

The Celia Bryce Band | Links | Album Review | Vermillion Road Records | 14.06.14

The Jarrow-born children’s author Celia Bryce once again assumes her healthy side-line role as a perfectly well-equipped singer/songwriter, whose Country-tinged songs somehow manage to blend the sound of Nashville with her own particular North Eastern roots, no better exemplified than on the brass-accompanied “Hexham Tan”.  “Raven-haired Girl”, a song written in celebration of Hexham Abbey, nestled away up there in Northumberland, also demonstrates Celia’s penchant for writing good acoustic pop, with more hooks than an angler’s tackle box.  With Tony Schofield on guitars, banjo, mandolin and harmonica and Colin Bradshaw on bass and percussion, the Celia Bryce Band sound like they’re having fun, while bringing us some highly melodic, infectious and delightfully engaging songs.

Boo Hewerdine | Amazing Robot | Single Review | Reveal Records | 15.06.14

A couple of tasters from Boo Hewerdine’s forthcoming album My Name In The Bracket, due out in October.  The two songs, led by the nostalgic “Amazing Robot” (anyone care to admit being old enough to remember The Amazing Magic Robot quiz game from the 1950s?), which sees Hewerdine in reflective mood, using the little green toy as a metaphor for childhood hopes and dreams.  “Drinking Alone” reveals the songwriter’s credentials as a fine writer of country-tinged songs, once again tackling all the instruments himself with the exception of clarinet and drums.  If the other songs on the album match these two initial offerings, then we’re on to a winner.   

Zoe Muth | World of Strangers | Album Review | Signature Sounds | 16.06.14

Zoe Muth’s country roots are clearly showing on this her third album to date, the former pre-school teacher making the recent move from her native Seattle to the Austin, Texas in order to deliver a bunch of songs that have been gestating for some time.  Surrounding herself with some choice musicians, the singer/songwriter blends her country and folk influences well on these self-penned songs, while also popping into the mix a fine take of Ronnie Lane’s “April Fool”, folk-rock at its core and indeed one of the standout tracks.

The Railsplitters | The Railsplitters | Album Review | Self Release | 16.06.14

Delicious Bluegrass at its best permeates this fine debut by Colorado-based quartet The Railsplitters, whose sharp musicianship and fine harmonies make it all worth getting out of the bed in a morning for.  With her distinctive voice, Lauren Stovall for all intents and purposes leads the band, but remains an equal component in this tightly democratic unit.  With assured banjo and mandolin courtesy of Dusty Rider and Peter Sharp respectively, together with Leslie Ziegler’s understated yet at the same time completely inventive upright bass playing, together with four dove-tailed voices, the dozen songs and tunes included here would on their merit alone ensure that The Railsplitters reach this neck of the woods by early next year; Celtic Connections perhaps?  This is a stunning five-star album.

Haddo | Borderlands | Album Review | Lulubug Records | 16.06.14

I always assumed that people who take up the harmonica prefer to travel light.  As their fellow musicians struggle up the steps with heavy duty touring cases, the likes of Big Walter Horton, Little Walter and any number of ‘Sonny Boys’ you care to bring to mind, would simply place their opposable digits in the top pocket of their zoot suit and pull out their little tin instrument of joy.  I quite mistakenly thought this of Will Pound, that is until I saw him recently on stage sitting next to a suitcase chock full of ‘em.  Eighty harmonicas, mouth organs, blues harps, gob irons, call them what you will, this man knows his instruments inside out and will pop one in his laughing gear to play just for you at the drop of a hat.  It’s a different story when Will puts on his other hat, the one he wears when performing with his wife and musical partner Nicky Pound, whose beautiful fiddle playing is deserving of the more complimentary of instruments, the melodeon, another instrument that Will just happens to be a master of.  Haddo’s second album Borderlands, follows hot on the heels of their debut Homecoming, bringing together once again two fine and empathetic musicians for a feast of traditional and contemporary tunes and for the first time, a couple of songs delivered with Nicky’s native Scots inflections, including “Will Ye No Come Back Again”.  For those who can’t imagine anything by Will Pound that doesn’t involve the harmonica, the little Devil makes an appearance a minute before the end of this album, almost like an intoxicated gate crasher stepping out of line at a Spootiskerry party.    

Mishaped Pearls | Thamesis | Album Review | Self Release | 23.06.14

When you first experience the London-based band Mishaped Pearls, whether that be audibly on record or audio/visually right there in front of you, in person, you are immediately drawn to another world entirely.  There doesn’t appear to be any contrivance or artificiality evident in what they do, they create their otherworldly aura and ethereal presence quite naturally, so much so that you tend not to want to fully grasp how this works for fear of revealling the ‘magic’.  For evidence of this so called ‘magic’, look no further than the chorus of “Cornish Girl”, the exquisite harmonies of which demand an instant replay, but not to the extent of revealing any of the Magic Circle’s precious secrets.  The band’s third release Thamesis happens to be one humdinger of an album and once again the band succeed in keeping the mystery very much a mystery.  The nucleus of this unique sound lies in the outstanding lyricism and musical prowess of Ged Flood, who provides the muse-like German-born mezzo soprano Manuela Schütte with a delicious repertoire to work her magic on.  The third vital ingredient is the multi-instrumentalist Gerry Diver, who works in partnership with Flood on the arrangements and also co-produces.  With just nine songs, mostly from the pen of Ged Flood, plus an almost throwaway coda whose title reflects the content “La La La”, the album provides the listener with more than a bunch of nice songs, but a veritable journey into the unknown.  Even when the band re-work one of Ralph McTell’s classic songs, seen in this case from a woman’s perspective, it’s almost like you’re hearing the song for the very first time.  Brilliant album.  

Larkin Poe | Kin | Album Review | RH Music | 24.06.14

The current whisper going around concerning Larkin Poe, mainly from those who were around almost at the band’s conception back in 2010, centres around the fact that they are now (for better or worse), much more of a rock band than their formative rootsy country-tinged bluegrass origins.  Actually, since hanging up their bluegrass credentials in the wake of their elder sibling Jessica taking a sabbatical in early 2010, the remaining sisters Megan and Rebecca have always aspired to leading a funky southern rock band.  The release of their first recorded outing as Larkin Poe, an EP simply entitled the Spring EP, contained one of their strongest rock influenced songs to date, the bluesy “The Principle of Silver Lining” and in reality, the band’s sound has just been steadily building on that foundation ever since.  Kin is the band’s first bone fide full length album under their own name after a succession of EPs, collaborations, guest appearances and side projects and should appeal to a more eclectic audience than those steeped in what we now refer to as Americana.  The duo set out to search for and ultimately ‘find’ their own unique sound over the course of a year and now four years on, Larkin Poe seems to be delivering what they consider to be the sound they’ve been looking for.  The songs balance between all out rockers such as “Don’t”, “Sugar High” and “Jailbreak” and more pop oriented material such as “Stubborn Love”, “Jesse” and “Banks of Allatoona”, with a revisit to one of the band’s most spectacularly good compositions, “We Intertwine”, which first made an appearance on the band’s aforementioned Spring EP.  The new album is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, especially those who pine for the Lovell Sisters days, or even for the likes of “Long Hard Fall”, but it is what it is.  It’s still damn good though and still features one of the best lead voices that the States has produced in decades and a slide guitarist that could give Lowell George a run for his money.  More importantly, in light of the fact that since the band took on their new sound and style, Larkin Poe have played some of the most iconic festivals in this country almost back to back and have gained a fanbase that probably exceeds their own expectations.  

Loudon Wainwright III | Haven’t Got the Blues Yet | Album Review | Proper | 25.06.14

Loudon Wainwright III has been a chronicler of his own turbulent life and affairs for over four decades now and once again, utilising his inimitable sardonic wit, his charismatic personality permeates this latest collection of vignettes to family, society, love, depression or just simply to the everyday.  Whether addressing Biblical sins, religion, the blues, the hustle bustle of life hurrying by or just the mundane everyday chores, such as taking the dog for a walk, Wainwright still manages to keep us on the edge of our seats.  The sad clown in the bathtub isn’t the first image that springs to mind when thinking about the man who brought us “Dead Skunk”, “The Swimming Song” or even “Somethin’ Stupid” with Barry Humphries, but there is always this underlying notion of the dark side behind the clown.  If there was the vaguest suspicion that Wainwright might be losing his acerbic wit, then look no further than The Morgue for a nervous belly laugh or two.  Likewise “I’ll Be Killing You This Christmas”, manages to transcend every cynical seasonal song in memory.  Although Wainwright’s sharp pen is written all over this collection, it’s a borrowed gem that I return to time and time again, as the late Michael Marra’s “Harmless” is treated to a rare tender moment.  It wouldn’t be a Loudon Wainwright album if our hero didn’t find himself apologising to his kids once again and “I Loved Your Mother” should put it all to rest; a beautiful dictum to all offspring who demand an explanation as to why mum and dad’s marriage didn’t work out.  A difficult piece of Catharsism, but deliciously stated.

Plumhall | Thundercloud | Album Review | Splid Records | 26.06.14

As an opening gambit, I return to the Moonbeams Festival this summer, where I was casually heading over to the Garden Stage at the Moonbeams Festival up there in Yorkshire, when the distant sound of something resembling early Buckingham Nicks danced upon the ether.  Once I reached my destination, I discovered an old pal and his wife on stage entertaining a packed audience with their engaging songs.  Nick B Hall is a hard working singer/songwriter, whose musical partnership with sibling Duncan (The Hall Brothers) has survived for decades.  Michelle Plum is also a hard working singer/songwriter, previously of Chumbawamba, Waking the Witch and The Accidental Tourists fame, and between them both, we detect a fairly solid and admirable household work ethic.  One imagines gig listings next to grocery reminders on the fridge door. Yep, Plumhall the duo continue to gig relentlessly, gracing festival and club stages all over the country and at frequent intervals.  Thundercloud encapsulates some of that musical prowess in eleven songs, each treated to a fine arrangement and a rather good production job, courtesy of David Crickmore.  From the opening song, from which the album takes its title, a song with Native American connotations, we immediately know that the production is going to be of a high standard throughout, which it is.  The attention to detail on both voices, each one revealed as assured and confident, remains a focal point throughout the album.  Nick’s soulful falsetto on “Let Me Sleep”, featuring a guest appearance by Maggie Boyle on flute, is a revelation.  It seems to open up the duo’s sound to a new dimension.  Nick and Michelle’s credentials as fine songwriters has been confirmed and rewarded at the recent Yorkshire Gig Guide Grassroots Awards, where the duo picked up the award for Outstanding Song Writing.  Evidence of this can be found in these songs, all of which are self-penned with the exception of Boff Whalley’s Country-tinged “Learning How to Talk”.  A fine debut to check out.

Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer | Maritime | Album Review | Self Release | 28.06.14

The elements that first drew me to Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer’s debut duo album, Seed Of A Pine, are once again present and correct here on their follow up release Maritime.  Those elements are identified as follows: great songs, intuitive musicianship, exquisite arrangements and extraordinary harmony vocals.  We speak endlessly of the value of great harmonies, whether they’re produced by Classical choral ensembles, church choirs, barbershop quartets, Doo Wop groups or the abundance of musical pairings working in a variety of genres, the industry standard or benchmark being the Everly Brothers, whose unique blend most duos aspire to.  Occasionally though, we come across two completely different voices that just happen to work so well together.  That fine gelling of voices is introduced immediately on the opening song “Helicopter”, as Dave and Mandy create an almost melancholy atmosphere, perfectly responding to the stillness of the cover painting.  The dozen original songs here are composed either by Dave or Mandy or both together in close collaboration, the songwriter identified as the lead singer of his or her song, each selection enhanced by the others’ close harmony.  Both on record or in a live setting, it’s hard to imagine these two musicians being apart from one another, you would miss the other musician’s contribution, whether it be on the delicately haunting “Victoria”, the chant-like refrain of “Silence” or the folk-rock propensity of “Tide Moon Ship Horn”.  Initially, most of the songs appear to have a laid-back fragility, but once the songs seep in, the textures become apparent.  The songs are so laid back and soothing that it appears that the duo are putting little serious effort into it, but of course they are; to achieve this sort of result they must be.  Perhaps they just have a knack of making it all look so effortless.  We don’t necessarily need to know that the couple reside in an idyllic setting, on an island in northwest Washington, a place where nature is literally right there on the doorstep, because the music suggests it.  With Dave having spent some considerable time as a wildlife biologist, it makes sense that he chooses to make music this delicate in the environment he and Mandy are accustomed to.  Neither do we need to actually see this for ourselves in person, it’s all there in the music, we are given the opportunity to sense it.  A difficult second?  Pfft, easy peasy.

Red Molly | The Red Album  | Album Review | Red Molly Records | 09.07.14

Named after our heroine in Richard Thompson’s dramatic girl/bike story “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, which also makes an appearance here, Red Molly are a multifaceted trio of musicians comprising Molly Venter on guitar, Abbie Gardner on dobro and Laurie MacAllister on bass, each of whom contributes their own distinctive voice in the process.  Red Molly avoid genre cliché and explore a wide and varied repertoire that encompasses straight forward mainstream Country fare with “You Don’t Have a Heart For It”, the gospel blues feel of the stomping opener “Clinch River Blues” to the highly contemporary singer/songwriter atmosphere of the piano-led “I Am Listening”, which is so different to the rest of the album it almost feels out of place, although I’m particularly glad it’s there because it’s so utterly spellbinding. Along with Richard Thompson’s moto-tragedy melodrama, another notable ‘cover’ comes by way of Paul Simon’s preeminent “Homeward Bound”, which is not just revisited but revitalised here and features some of the best harmonies on the album. Well it has to be if you’re up against Simon and Garfunkel I suppose. Closing with an a cappella “Copper Ponies”, the album demonstrates more than just a touch of class and is well worth the price tag.  

Red Bird Sky | The Unravelling | Album Review | Saira Records | 13.07.14

I have to lay my cards on the table from the start with a tentative apology.  I can’t get along with Bernie Maguire’s voice and since it’s really the focal point of the ten songs on this album, it doesn’t hold out much hope for the most positive review to date.  However, I’m a much kinder reviewer than that (hopefully) and I shall concentrate on good intentions, song writing, the overall sound of the band and the production and presentation, all of which is thankfully very much on the plus side.  I hate singling out the singer for disdainful criticism, but Bernie needn’t fear, I didn’t like Richard Thompson’s voice when I first heard it and it took me a decade to get used to it and when I was first introduced to Tom Waits, I thought the person who gave me the album was joking.  Once again, Waits is another one of my favourite singers now.  If any of this suggests that Bernie has an unusual or strangely eccentric singing voice, then I’m misleading you further.  I think the problem for me personally is that it isn’t unusual or strangely eccentric enough, but rather a little pedestrian for my liking.  The Nigel Stonier (Thea Gilmore) produced The Unravelling has some pretty good driving rhythms throughout, especially on songs such as the belting “Being Human”, the upbeat “Falling Freely” and the Country-infused, almost sing-a-long “Open-Minded Heart”. There’s a feel-good thread that permeates the album, which suggests that the band of musicians who join the nucleus of Bernie Maguire and Mike Seal, both of whom co-wrote all the songs, are thoroughly enjoying themselves, musicians that include a guest appearance by Lindisfarne’s Rod Clements on dobro, mandolin and baritone guitar.   

Anja McCloskey | Quincy Who Waits | Album Review | Sotones Records | 20.07.14

Quincy Who Waits is the second album release by German/American singer/songwriter Anja McCloskey, who once again explores an almost infinite range of textures on these twelve highly original songs.  The album’s title derives from a daffodil shrouded plaque on a Des Moines memorial bridge, which reads ‘Quincy Who Waits in the Daffodils’, which itself presents an immediate sense of the mysterious; the title song careens along in an ethereal dance, suitably conjuring up a most fitting melody for those evocative lyrics.  There’s nothing straight forward or indeed predictable to these songs, they rather drift along following a tangent of their own accord.  With a fresh and interesting approach and a touch of Moulettes about her, McCloskey lets the accordion take a predominant role in the songs, with some striking melodies and mature arrangements throughout.

Red Sky July | Shadowbirds | Album Review | Shadowbirds Records | 24.07.14

‘We just wanted to make something beautiful’ was Shelly Poole’s initial response when asked what they wanted to achieve when the band started recording their second album and that’s pretty much what they’ve done. The London-based trio, comprising Shelly, husband Ally McErlaine (Texas) and former model Charity Hair (The Alice Band), have produced something both slick and polished with these ten self-penned Country-inflected songs, each revealing all that’s good about modern alt-country music.  Difficult to choose the stand-out song.  Although the album was recorded in just one week, the results seem to suggest that a much longer period was taken to allow these songs to mature.  Songs like “Losing You” and “Lay Down Your Love” sound pretty much well-rehearsed and worn-in as does the remainder of the album.  Producers Ross Hamilton and Michael Bannister may take some credit for this; the band’s infectious harmonies and beautiful melodies have been captured and bottled up for mass consumption and perhaps, Shadowbirds just might be the album that garners the attention the band deserves. 

Kaela Rowan | Menagerie | Album Review | Shoogle Records | 28.08.14

The former Gaelic singer with the popular worldbeat/Celtic fusion band Mouth Music and co-founder of The Bevvy Sisters goes it alone with her own debut solo album, made up predominantly of self-penned songs.  Produced by James Mackintosh, Menagerie gives us an opportunity to hear Kaela Rowan’s voice in its distinctively unique and unpolished raw state; her voice wobbling and fluctuating almost recklessly around the lyrics.  This deliciously fallible voice allows us to engage with the songs on a human level.  Nowhere during her performance does Kaela conform to deliberate prettiness, although the coda on Apocalypse verges on an unprecedented and ethereal beauty unmatched by anything else on the album.  Although the album is indeed a little otherworldly in places, it is beautifully produced and arranged and replete with World Music influences and instrumental embellishments via the African kalimba and the Brazilian berimbau.  The old Talking Heads song “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” fits in well with the rest of the songs on the album.  It’s nice to know there’s such an album on the shelf should I need it.

Orchestre Ruffanti | Allegro Vanden Plas | Album Review | Wavelength Records | 29.08.14

The Allegro Vanden Plas is not just a well-known brand name in top-notch luxury wheels, but also the title of the long-awaited debut album by the 14-piece Doncaster-based band Orchestre Ruffanti.  Not only does the band celebrate the iconic car by naming their album after it, but they also splash it all over the cover and accompanying booklet with a predominantly light blue and pink colour scheme; it takes a moment before you realise you’re holding an album sleeve and not a wedding brochure.  The two ladies casually draped over the limo on the front cover are none other than Jayne Cooper and Charlotte Black, two of the three main vocalists who democratically dish out the lead voices throughout the album, with one or two excursions into the Burlesque, courtesy of the male lead Richard Masters, whose contribution at times comes over a little like Pink Martini meets Benny Hill.  Being the brainchild of percussionist and producer Keith Angel, the concept of Orchestre Ruffanti appears to be the re-imagining of a handful of well-known numbers, including Ian Dury’s “Wake Up and Make Love With Me”, which is much more sensual than the original, Ed Cobb’s Northern Soul Classic “Tainted Love” re-invented as a lounge jazz crooner and even a moment or two of Jake Thackray with the playful “Lah-di-Dah”, each song treated to a completely re-vitalised arrangement.  It’s not all covers though as the band introduce a handful of self-penned songs such as the Spanish influenced “Song of the Birds” and “Dance at Every Wedding”.  Track listed in the manner of the late lamented vinyl LP, side two begins with an almost unrecognisable arrangement of the old T Rex hit “Get It On”, which for all intents and purposes could have been the B Side of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”, Sarah Potts’ Paul Desmond-like sax solo perfectly keeping with the retro cool jazz remit, the arrangement also introducing something more along the lines of The Blockheads fare, courtesy of Dave Lane’s Moog synthesiser.  Another notable song is Charlotte Black’s pretty faithful interpretation of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose”, sung in French of course, a suitable end to the party as the last of the sparkling wine is sipped and the remaining cheese and pickled onion is sucked off the final cocktail stick.  The band’s hometown of Doncaster is name-checked on “Latin Quarter”, stretching the imagination slightly of anyone who has actually walked down Silver Street on a Saturday night.  The impressive and handsomely packaged sleeve is beautifully photographed within the grounds of Cusworth Hall, one of the town’s landmarks, a setting that seems to mirror the music on the record.  There appears to be no other detectable objective to Allegro Vanden Plas than to entertain all who wish to listen, which is emphasised in the standard of playing by those involved, all of whom give it their best shot.  So, put on your best clobber, pour yourself a glass of sparkling wine and be prepared to dance.  

Kris Drever and Eamonn Coyne | Mareel | EP Review | Reveal Records | 01.09.14

Following last year’s Storymap collaboration, Kris Drever once again teams up with Eamonn Coyne for a new 5-track EP, recorded in the idyllic setting of the Shetland Islands. Joined by a gathering of local musicians, the duo recorded the five selections at the waterfront cinema and arts centre in Lerwick from which the EP gets its name.  Revisiting LAU’s “Wintermoon”, a song first heard on the trio’s celebrated Arc Light album in 2009, the song is re-shaped to include some tasty three-part harmonies courtesy of Drever together with Louise Thomason and Freda Leask.  Ewan Maccoll’s poignant song to the plight of the travelling people Moving On Song packs the punch Maccoll very much intended. For a real sense of Shetland though, look no further than the three instrumental selections, “Isles Tunes”, “Oot An In Da Harbour” and “Three Jigs-ish”, each of which feature a handful of Shetland’s finest musicians, with Coyne’s Irish banjo clearly a focal point.  

Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker | Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour | Album Review | Rough Trade | 05.09.14

How long does it take for a new voice to break through and make an impression these days?  It’s a good five years since Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker spent their quiet nights uploading YouTube videos of themselves performing songs as sacrosanct as Sandy Denny’s “Fotheringay” and making a blimmin’ good job of it.  Then each year thereafter, the duo go on to make some fine records either under the duo’s name or in the case of One Light Is Gone, under Josienne’s name alone, each release seemingly getting better and better.  We might have even thought that Josienne and Ben’s last album Fire And Fortune could have possibly been the pinnacle of this period of growth, but alas this dynamic duo do not rest on their laurels.  Like a veritable breath of fresh air comes the new album Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour, wafting into the Northern Sky office as if from Paradise.  Beautifully produced, this new record is devoid of all the usual folk clichés that seem to be churned out wholesale by the current spate of academically trained folk students, tirelessly regurgitating the Nic Jones and June Tabor repertoire with rarely an original musical idea to their name, much in the same manner as the plethora of new novelists whose books feel so familiar simply because they have attended the same creative writing course.  It might just be my ears, but I definitely hear something new and exciting here and I would go as far as to say that Josienne and Ben may very well have created their own definitive masterpiece here.  Let’s start with the elegant cover shot, which features our protagonists decked out in period costume for what could ostensibly be the latest Thomas Hardy adaptation, as Jude Fawley takes Sue Bridehead by the arm to lead her through the streets of Christminster.  Blue is the colour of melancholia in this production and both Hardy and Clarke have it in spades.  But alas, we already knew of Josienne’s rendezvous with melancholy, but were we aware of Ben’s increasingly adept ability to transform songs of this standard into something even more beautiful, with lavish string arrangements and astonishing musicianship?  Josienne’s credentials as the new voice on the block are explored throughout the songs on the album, predominantly her own self-penned songs, with the exception of three arrangements of well-known traditional songs, “The Queen of Hearts”, “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” and “I Wonder What is Keeping My True Love Tonight”.  Ben steps up his game not only with his guitar playing but also with his attention to detail in the orchestration, which not only sets out to reward the songs with a proverbial cherry on top, but also some of the icing and most of the cake’s flavour.  Some of that detail is realised by a long list of musical collaborators whose musicianship perfectly adorns this album, Jim Moray on piano for instance as well as regular collaborators and Red Clay Halo-ites Anna Jenkins and Jo Silverston, each of whom add further depth to the material throughout.  Further into the accompanying booklet, Jude and Sue step into the future as they alight from a London bus in the heavily congested city, while we meander through the album via the lyrics and arrive at the point where the past and present meet.  Songs like “Mainland” and “Earth and Ash and Dust” bring with them a contemporary feel, yet they remain pretty much as echoes of the past.  The new songs are rich in content and somehow bridge the modern with the ancient as Ondine Goldswain’s pictures suggest.  But I guess it’s the opening song “Silverline” that raises the bar for the rest of the album to follow; a gorgeous opener if ever there was one, chock full of Josienne’s trademark pensiveness, complete with a veritable crecendo of strings that somehow make the heart beat a little faster.  After hearing Fire And Fortune, then attending one or two gigs and going on to follow the duo with keen interest as a fan, I have no difficulty in proclaiming this a personal favourite and quite possibly the best album of 2014.  In the words of Janice Nicholls, ‘Oi’ll give it foive’.

Lauren Shera | Gold and Rust | Album Review | DigSin | 14.09.14

Gold And Rust is the third album release by Californian-born now Nashville-based singer/songwriter Lauren Shera, the title of which can be found in the lyric of the lead song Light and Dust, which has also been chosen as the album’s first single release. Recorded in Santa Cruz with Andy Zenczak at the helm, as in the case of Shera’s first two albums In My Bones (2006) and Once I Was A Bird (2010) respectively, this first release on DigSin Records features a dozen new songs that further mark this artist out as a viable contender on the contemporary country/folk crossover scene, whose undeniable ability to convey emotion and deliver slick arrangements is clear from the start.  Reminiscent in places of a young Stevie Nicks, Shera’s occasional vibrato brings to each performance additional depth and demonstrates a confidence beyond her years, especially on such songs as the tenacious “Hell’s Bells”, the sublime “Sweetgrass” and the Country-flavoured “Howl”.

The Mercy Alliance | Some Kind of Beautiful Story | Album Review | Beverly Martel Music | 20.09.14

Instantly accessible inde-rock with a noticeably melodic thread throughout, the latest release from Washington-based The Mercy Alliance sees the band team up with producer Thomas Johansen.  The band, essentially the vehicle for the song writing of Joe Rathbone, features ex-Counting Crows drummer Steve Bowman and bassist Brad Jones, who help create a vibrant live sound.  There’s some nice string arrangements at work in places, courtesy of David Henry, notably on the almost Beatle-esque arrangement of “I Can’t Do It” together with some pretty laid-back vocals from Rathbone.  Despite this, the album doesn’t really get past the fine and inviting opener Washington.

Kris Delmhorst | Blood Test | Album Review | Signature Sounds | 27.09.14

Enclosed within a sleeve that leads us back to nature, the Brooklyn-born singer/songwriter Kris Delmhorst’s new release, her seventh album to date and first of original material for six years, delivers on its promise.  Now residing in the idyllic hills of Western Massachusetts, the shotgun singer has found time to write and polish off a dozen really good songs, each exploring the here and now, with one or two reminiscences of the past, the evocative “92nd St” for instance, a memoir of hazy jasmine tea-fuelled afternoons with jazz filtering through broken speakers, and the veritable shower of experience pouring out on the bluesy “Saw It All”.  Some of the songs are reminiscent of Ryan Adams at his best, songs such as “Bees”, which evokes the same sort of soul searching.  The optimistic “Bright Green World” lifts the album momentarily, as does “Temporary Sun”, both ingrained with REM-like arrangements and a sense of euphoria.  Co-produced by Delmhorst and Anders Parker, who also plays guitar and bass, the album also features Mark Spencer on bass and Konrad Meissner on drums.  A fine album.

Rachel Newton | Changeling | Album Review | Shadowside Records | 04.10.14

It would be an understatement to say that Rachel Newton is a busy bee as we take in her recent collaborations; a member of the all-female sextet The Shee, a third of the Emily Portman Trio, add a certain Alasdair Roberts and then she’s a quarter of The Furrow Collective, not to mention her most recent collaboration with a veritable who’s who of notable folkies in the Elizabethan Session.  How Rachel Newton finds time for herself is anyone’s guess.  Yet the singer, harpist and multi-instrumentalist has indeed found a window and has made a remarkable record of her own, her second solo album and the follow up to the critically acclaimed The Shadow Side.  Once again, the playing is delicate, beautifully arranged and this time pretty much away with the faeries, or to be more accurate, the offspring of faeries.  The theme running through Changeling is the folklore surrounding the faerie child, the real child it replaces and for that matter the Child ballad!  Highly evocative, atmospheric and ethereal, the songs, sung in both English and Gaelic, together with the tunes, conjure up an engaging ambience, gracefully mirrored in the artwork by Illias.

Luke Tuchscherer | You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense | Album Review | Little Red | 05.10.14

I guess my only excuse for not reviewing this fabulous album sooner is that I was too busy playing it, over and over.  The singer/drummer with The Wybirds does a Dave Grohl and steps from behind the drum kit, picks up a guitar and presents a dozen self-penned songs with impressive panache. The title of the album might be familiar to you, having been borrowed from a book of poetry by Charles Bukowski, but the songs will certainly be new.  With the initial intention of making a record that would appeal to listeners the same way Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker did for Tuchscherer (pronounced Tuck-Shearer), the songs seem to have been cut from the same cloth.  There’s a bit of Gram Parsons here too, especially on “When Day is Done”, which could easily have been included on Grevous Angel or indeed GP.  “Two Ships Caroline Please” is as good as it gets and falls somewhere between The Byrds and Tom Petty, with an instantly accessible radio friendly groove.  This album should be heard and then celebrated.

Kevin Macleod | Highland Strands | Album Review | Birnham | 06.10.14

Some fine arrangements of both traditional Highland Bagpipe and contemporary fiddle tunes performed by some of the UK’s finest players.  Eight years in the planning and recorded over a six months period in Fife, Kevin Macleod has gathered a rich ensemble of musicians to realise his vision, including De Dannan’s Alec Finn, The Tannahill Weavers’ Phil Smillie and Shooglenifty’s Luke Pumb.  The tunes are performed with a great deal of finesse on fiddle, bouzouki, cittern, mandolin, flute and an assortment of guitars and the release is accompanied by some detailed sleeve notes.  If your thing is the music session, then this is an example of how to do it well.

Eddi Reader | Back The Dogs | EP Review | Reveal | 07.10.14

When Eddi Reader’s current album Vagabond landed on the Northern Sky desk for review back in January, “Back the Dogs” was the first choice for inclusion on the accompanying radio show, so an obvious choice for ‘single’ material here.  Reiterating what we discussed in that review, this singer has been gifted with ‘a most versatile voice; the sort of voice that manages to navigate the great songbooks of time almost chameleon-like, yet with everything she does, manages to maintain her own distinctive sonic personality’.  Well the five songs on this EP confirms that point once again, whether Eddi tackles the Super Furry Animals’ “Juxtaposed With U” and the much missed Amy Winehouse with “Love is a Losing Game”, or fine interpretations of the standards “Mona Lisa” and “Moon River”, the latter of which evokes the image of Audrey Hepburn sitting on that windowsill strumming her guitar, but not so much ‘how do I look?’ but ‘how do I sound?’ – well, pretty fab Eddi, pretty fab indeed.

Jenny Gillespie | Chamma | Album Review | Narooma Records | 10.10.14

Lake Michigan’s Jenny Gillespie returns with an album of subtle melodies and experimental beats underpinning nine new songs, each treated to a contemporary feel.  There’s crickets in the background, mixing perfectly well with drum and bass samples, some of which were initially explored with the use of an iMaschine app on her phone, which went seemingly everywhere.  Chamma is full of musical ideas, all of which dovetail together revealing an engaging whole.  The cut and paste collage method brings a painterly effect to the music, enhanced further by the use of string arrangements on such as “Epiphanee”, “Lift the Collar” and the title song, while the final composition, the cinematic “Holidays (Makr Remix)” is almost David Lynchian in atmosphere.  

Various Artists | Songs For The Voiceless | Album Review | Haystack Records | 15.10.14

It’s almost impossible to escape the First World War in 2014 for obvious reasons and the British folk community has already played its part in remembrance throughout the year with projects such as Robb Johnson’s Gentle Men, Coope Boyes and Simpson’s In Flanders Fields, Show of Hands’ Centenary album and significantly The Unthanks with Sam Lee’s A Time and Place project, each paying their respects to those who fought and died in the war that was supposed to end all wars.  Songs For The Voiceless is the idea of Sheffield’s Michael J Tinker, who has gathered together a bunch of notable folk singers and musicians as a collective to work on true life stories as a basis for the songs presented here.  Taking stories from the past through testimonies of those involved, in some cases the ancestors of those taking part, the singers and musicians have created a broad landscape in the nine songs and tunes, reflecting the hardships with no small measure of deeply felt emotion.  Produced by Andy Bell, the album’s emphasis is very definitely on those stories, which are further explained in the inner booklet.  Joining Michael J Tinker is Bella Hardy, Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, The Young ‘Uns, Ian Stephenson and Tom Oakes, with an additional bonus track supplied by Jon Boden who also writes the foreword in the detailed booklet.  It’s impossible to hear these songs without sitting down and reflecting on the events of a hundred years ago. A fitting tribute. 

Ben Poole | Live at the Royal Albert Hall | Album Review | Manhaton | 16.10.14

If you’re going to make a live album, especially one that’s been requested by fans for some time, then you might as well do it at the Royal Albert Hall.  The venue is no stranger to the blues, in fact this reviewer has witnessed some particularly breath-taking performances at the venue by the likes of Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and Eric Clapton, and all on the same night!  That was then and this is now.  Ben Poole gives a soulful performance with just seven songs (plus a bonus studio track “Starting All Over Again”), which provides more than just a snapshot of what this young musician is capable of.  Just listening through I’m reminded of the venue; it’s clever acoustics and rich atmosphere, not to mention the knowledge that wherever you sit in that impressive building, you always feel close to what’s going on onstage.  Recorded almost a year ago, the young Bedfordshire-born singer/guitarist, together with Craig Bacon on drums, Mat Beable on bass, Sam Mason on keyboards and some sweet backing vocals courtesy of Amy Eftekhari, played their set at the Kensington venue as part of BluesFest 2013, which was recorded by the BBC and originally broadcast on Paul Jones’ show on BBC Radio 2.  Ben’s own songs stand side by side such classics as Otis Redding’s “Mr Pitiful” and Billy Myles’ “Have You Ever Loved a Woman”, which Ben brings some impressive T Bone Walker treatment to, especially during the guitar intro. Just to demonstrate his classic rock credentials, Ben tips his hat to Deep Purple with a few bars of “Black Night” tagged onto the end of The Temptations “(I Know) I’m Losing You”.  Testament to a good live album is the feeling that you were at the gig, which in this case is right.  Check it out.    

David Gibb | Letters Through Your Door | Album Review | Hairpin | 23.10.14

It’s not very often an album of children’s songs gets a review in these pages, but then again not all albums of children’s songs are like this one.  From the moment you press ‘play’ it’s almost like turning on the sunshine.  Folk singers having fun?  Whatever next?  The name of David Gibb might spring to mind initially as one half of the Derbyshire-based duo David Gibb and Elly Lucas, the pair having made their presence felt on the folk club and festival circuit for some time now.  I imagine turning his hand to songs specifically for children and families would have come with relative ease; he’s only young himself, a mere 23-years old and of the times that I’ve been in his presence, whether that’s watching him onstage with Elly, or dancing with strangers in Derby Market Square or even loitering backstage, bringing cheer to those around him, there’s a sense of likeability and charisma that you feel kids would immediately respond to.  That is the quality evident in this project.  You can’t listen to Letters Through Your Door without a smile appearing on your face.  With titles such as “The Dog Doesn’t Listen To Me”, “Wiggle Your Way Towards Me” and “There’s a Dragon in My Bedroom” (to which Les Dawson would no doubt have quipped “what’s new there then?”), the intention is pretty clear from the start, it’s all about giving children and families something of a superior quality than the usual bunch of children’s songs that have been the staple in schools and nurseries for eons.  Helping to get this right, David has surrounded himself with a bunch of choice musicians, including Will Pound, Jim Molyneux, James Findlay, Ollie King and Cliff Ward, to name but a few, who between them help to create a strong musical base for the songs to ride upon.  There’s also a handful of hand-picked special guests who duet with David to help him tell some of the stories, including Lucy Ward, Bella Hardy, Jez Lowe, Nancy Kerr and Blue Code Rose (Ross Wilson), none of whom offer the slightest indication that David had their respective arms up their backs.  Also, it would be criminal not to mention Pippa Curnick whose artwork defines the ‘what it says on the tin’ adage.

Charlie Dore | Milk Roulette | Album Review | Black Ink Music | 03.11.14

There’s something about Charlie Dore’s voice that you tend to immediately trust, in the same manner as many of us trusted Carole King when she first stepped up to the fore with Tapestry all those years ago.  When an established songwriter, whose work is recognised through other well-known artist’s interpretations, steps up to the microphone and tells us what she really means, then we tend to sit up and listen.  Once again Charlie presents this album, her eighth to date, as a well-thumbed novel, reflecting the ten story songs within.  However, there’s nothing neither tatty-edged nor dog-eared about the songs, which follow the general theme of ‘births, marriages and deaths’.  From the opening few bars of “All These Things”, we are engaged in an optimistic journey that we anticipate to be thoroughly beguiling, but which we soon discover to be revealing at the same time.  The song is a superb opener, fabulously melodic with the sort of chorus that you could imagine as a show stopper in a stage musical; you know, the pivotal moment in the show where a single spotlight hits our heroine full in the face and brings along the inevitable emotions, however much you struggle to contain yourself.  With intelligent lyrics and immediately accessible melodies, the songs on Milk Roulette maintain a certain mood throughout; pensive, meditative and contemplative, yet they also provide us with the occasional knowing smile.  The title song is a delicious meditation on taking risks, based on a family phrase describing how Charlie’s father used to test milk for whether it had gone sour or not.  Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow appear on “Three a Penny”, a sharp remonstration on music downloading and our current liaison with a quick-fix culture, delivered with strong harmonies and minimal instrumental accompaniment, helping to get the message across just right.  Other guest voices include Reg Meuross and Jess Vincent who help to tell the tale of a neglected bride in “Best Man for the Job”, a song that also features a nice Dobro solo courtesy of co-producer, multi-instrumentalist and chief collaborator Julian Littman.  It really is difficult to listen to these songs without becoming totally immersed in them, as if you were personally involved in all the stories.  The final song on the album, “Cradle Song”, is a beautiful piano instrumental written by Charlie’s mother when she was but a child. Adding to the charm of this gorgeous tune is Charlie’s dad, who appears during this recital reading his own poems, which is ultimately nothing short of a moving statement in anyone’s books.  A lovely album.

Alex Highton | Nobody Knows Anything | Album Review | Gare Du Nord | 06.11.14

Both contemporary and jazz-inflected nuances permeate this second album by Liverpool-born, now Cambridgeshire-based singer/songwriter Alex Highton.  With an obsession for both the ‘horseshoe’ moustache and the vintage typewriter, at least according to the sleeve artwork, Alex Highton appears to be almost fearless in his approach, with a dozen or so self-penned songs that pivot between the dramatic and the whimsical, each delivered in a clear Merseyside vernacular.  With some fine arrangements, the songs are treated variously to a Dixieland jazz feel on the opener “You Don’t Own This Life”, an off-kilter Randy Newman-esque arrangement on “It Falls Together”, a finely-tuned duet with Nancy Wallace on “Kills” and not least the bright and breezy sun-drench excursion of “She Had This Sister”, which is sure to warm up these dull winter nights. 

The Alt | The Alt | Album Review | Under the Arch Records | 15.11.14

Named after a glen on the side of Sligo County’s Knocknarea mountain, The Alt comprises a trio of familiar Irish musicians of some considerable note; multi-instrumentalist John Doyle, flautist and whistle player Nuala Kennedy and guitarist and bouzouki player Eamon O’Leary, who each combine their respective instrumental prowess with their equally rich vocal credentials on eleven songs and tunes that make up this their debut album.  Recorded in the conducive tranquillity of a small Appalachian cabin in North Carolina, the songs and tunes reach back into Ireland’s past and are treated to some highly skilful arrangements.  Familiar songs such as “Lovely Nancy”, “Going for a Soldier Jenny” and “One Morning in May” are accompanied by one or two dextrous sets of tunes and a fine Scots Gaelic version of “Cha Tig Mor Mo Bhean Dhachaigh”.  A rather superb mini-Transatlantic Session.

Amanda Rheaume | Keep a Fire | Album Review | Self Release | 16.11.14

The native Canadian roots of Metis singer-songwriter Amanda Rheaume is central to the title song from this, the singer/songwriter’s latest album release.  Equipped with a confident singing voice and vocal delivery, Amanda Rheaume reveals a powerful insight into her own family’s history.  That background is further explored on “A.G.B. Bannatyne”, in honour of Amanda’s own great great great grandfather, who was apparently a founding father of Manitoba and friend of the legendary Louis Riel.  Some history right there then. That history is echoed in the collection of family photographs scattered over the cover artwork.  Despite the urge to re-tell these engaging stories through the ten songs on the album, the Ottawa-based songwriter ensures the melodies are attractive enough to keep those stories alive.

Sharon Van Etten | Are We There | Album Review | Jagjaguwar | 20.11.14

According to an old boyfriend, Sharon Van Etten resembles Suzi Quatro although most cite Wynona Ryder as a more likely model. I rather suspect an even more accurate comparison would be that of serial killer Dexter’s potty-mouthed foster sister Debra, but all this is by the by.  The fact is the New Jersey-born now New York-based singer has a voice and song writing ability to match her sophisticated physiognomy.  Her fourth album Are We There has an immediate sense of atmosphere, sparse pianos in empty rooms, candid lyrics that take us through the various stages of a failing or actually failed relationship.  There’s no holding back once the stable door is open and songs such as “Your Love is Killing Me”, “I Love You But I’m Lost” and “Nothing Will Change” indicates precisely what this album is about by the song titles alone.

Annie Keating | Make Believing | Album Review | Self Release | 23.11.14

Make Believing, the sixth album release by Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Annie Keating features just under a dozen self-penned songs, each bathed in her own distinct approach to Americana; strong melodies, mature lyrics and vulnerable vocal delivery.  From the optimistic fairground fun of Coney Island, echoed in the cover picture, the bluesy “I Want to Believe” and the almost whispered desperation of “Still Broken”, the songs weave through the emotions with relative ease.  Co-produced with long- time collaborator Jason Mercer, the breezy acoustic sound is fresh and inviting, possibly due to the fact that much of the album was recorded live in just a couple of days, with the occasional strategically placed ‘twang’ just to remind us of Annie’s Country sensibilities.

The Vagaband | Medicine for the Soul | Album Review | Eggsong | 02.12.14

I think I said “watch this space” when I reviewed The Vagaband’s debut album a couple of years ago.  That space has now been filled with a follow-up that comes equally recommended, an album of songs where Norfolk meets Nashville and I dare say most places between.  The eight-piece band’s tight arrangements ensure the songs are never cluttered, despite the band’s healthily stocked cupboard full of instruments.  The title song “Medicine for the Soul”, written in memory of the late Townes Van Zandt, evokes the same sort of minor key country-inflected blues the Texan singer/songwriter was himself known for.  The spoken intro, sampled from the film Heartworn Highways, once again reminds us of the huge void left by Townes Van Zandt, who in the film would one moment be swigging vodka and coke from separate bottles, the next reducing us to tears with his beautiful songs.  The Vagaband seem to be unafraid to venture between musical genres, fearlessly pivoting between a vaudevillian “A Town with No Name”, a Devil Went Down to Georgia-esque take on Ween’s “Gabrielle” to a bizarre instrumental “Ten Bells Waltz”, which sounds like it could be a variation on the theme of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), but now I’m showing my age.  A richly adventurous and thoroughly engaging follow up to 2012’s Town And Country.